Camera Obscura Out of Thin Air
Day/Time: Saturday, April 22 4:00 PM (90 minutes)
Location: Dark Room WorkshopI will show how to make and use updated, powerful versions of the camera obscura, as well as several other tools used by artists of long ago. Each project is inexpensive and easy to make, yet highly effective. In the first part of my presentation, I will take a familiar every-day object and "magically" transform it into a very effective camera obscura with the addition of a few inexpensive, easy-to-make accessories, in such a way that it seems to literally live up to the title of appearing out of thin air. It should be noted that I will not using any type of photographic camera, or pinhole camera, or any other such obvious type of item for the transformation into a camera obscura. Thus, because it avoids the obvious, the presentation is able to exploit a couple of different kinds of "WOW" factor. The first wow factor depends upon the fact that many people nowadays do not realize that artists in relatively ancient times had access to and routinely used surprisingly sophisticated technology. The second wow factor depends upon the sort of double-take you experience when you see someone take a perfectly every-day, humdrum item and use it for a completely unexpected purpose. This second type of wow factor is of course very familiar to anyone who has watched "MacGyver". Both types of wow factor are multiplied (wow factor squared) by the way in which my presentation takes these surprisingly sophisticated forms of ancient high technology and updates them in the most unexpected and unlooked-for ways using ubiquitous items taken from our familiar modern-day world. As if that were not enough, the projects in my presentation are surprisingly easy and quick to make, surprisingly feature-rich and fun AND produce high-quality results. The projects demonstrated by my presentation are extremely well suited for use in school classrooms, because they show how to adapt items that are readily available in any school for use in similar projects and lessons, and can be done quickly and cheaply. When I demonstrated my camera obscura out of thin air in my own classroom, even jaded students afflicted with Senioritis processed rather classic double-takes and rendered a verdict of cool.
Before going further, it would be in order to give a little background on the camera obscura. The camera obscura is most familiar to modern-day folk in a very primitive form, as the pinhole camera. Thus many people associate the camera obscura with the rather dim, fuzzy, and generally under-inspiring images formed by a pinhole camera. However, recent books by Phillip Steadman and David Hockney have rekindled interest and research into how artists such as Vermeer used considerably more sophisticated versions of the camera obscura to create highly finished works of art. Such camera obscuras utilized lens-based optics to form brilliant, vivid, sharp images that were beautiful to see. In its more versatile forms, the camera obscura allowed the artist or user not only to view a projected image, but to hand-trace the image as well, for use as a reference in creating finished works of art. My presentation would teach how to make and use just such a versatile type of camera obscura, complete with optics and a very sturdy surface for hand-tracing projected images. The images formed by my camera obscura are brilliant and sharp and much more exciting (and useful) than the murky images formed by pinhole cameras. My camera obscura also has an added, HIGHLY useful feature not found at all in the ancient versions of the tool (Interested?).
Another ancient tool updated with a twist in my presentation may be familiar to those who have studied the work of Albrecht Durer. In one of his prints, Durer depicts two artists using a device with moveable crosshairs and a pointer attached to a string to rigorously construct, point-by-point, the perspective of a subtly curved musical instrument. In effect, it would be rather like the modern process of scanning a physical 3-D model in order to render it on a computer. My update shows how to achieve a similar process, without the cumbersome, tedious crosshairs and string pointer, and also without needing to rely on a computer, yet with plenty of flash and pizazz and just a pinch of hi-tech spice.
Another artist's tool depicted in one of Durer's print is a drawing grid consisting of intersecting wires or cords stretched on an upright, free-standing frame, and used in conjunction with a similarly square-gridded sheet of drawing paper. My presentation will also show a simple, economical way to construct such a drawing grid, and ways to use it.
My presentation will also look at how certain modern techniques, such as the motion capture technology used in digital film-making, can be analyzed to suggest principles that may be adapted in relatively low-tech ways that can help anyone interested in improving their skills in rendering visual information accurately and interestingly.
I think one of the most exciting things about the project is that it teaches how the camera obscura can be a tool that may be enjoyed and used for a lifetime. It should also be noted, since I forgot to mention it in the background earlier, that the camera obscura is also of great interest in studying the development and history of photography, and the construction of the antique plate camera used to expose early photographs were basically constructed as camera obscuras.
Due to having double-majored in math and art as an undergraduate, I was once humorously advised by a friend's father to pursue a career in painting by numbers. After completing an M.A. in studio art, with emphases in painting and drawing, my actual career has been rather varied, including teaching experience in math and in visual art. I continue to enjoy learning and doing things that give both sides of my brain a workout. I'm a fairly compulsive reader, and whatever seeds of inventiveness and interest in making things were within me "in the beginning", so to speak, were copiously watered and sunned by the steady diet of books I read in my youth (and since). Of course one might expect most of the credit for inventive stimulus to go to the science fictional portion of my reading material. And although much credit is indeed due in that area, it would be a great mistake to overlook another source of powerful inventive catalyzing agent: namely, the mystery stories which I -- how shall I say it-- inhaled back in those days. While these detective stories included the likes of the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, and Trixie Belden, two other examples are the ones which vividly stand out in my mind as being highly inspirational to the budding (and budded) inventor. Likely as not, these two examples will not be very familiar to the up and coming generation of today, but back in those days they were hot items. The first was a series known as the McGurk Mysteries. The second was the sublime Three Investigator series (presented by Alfred Hitchcock, as I first came to know them). Their inspirational power for the inventor derived from several basic themes. First, your pockets could carry a limited, but well selected number of simple items that could carry you through an almost limitless number of situations. Add those items to the contents of your skull and the almost limitless became absolutely without bound. Thus strategically colored pieces of chalk and Jupiter Jones' prized swiss army knife were countless times instrumental in either delivering the Three Investigators from peril or in helping them to cut through webs of illusion and deceit and pursue the true clues that enabled them to solve the case. A second theme was the necessity for the detective team to be led by someone, such as Jupiter Jones or the titular McGurk, capable of obsession, of being possessed by an inability to rest until the mystery or crime had been solved. For the inventor, of course, the mystery may be an engineering problem which seems to mock solution and thus invites the requisite obsession. A third theme was the inherent nobility of junk. What more potent symbol to represent the frequent necessity for the investigators to actually improvise and invent tools or methods that would help them in their detective work. Furthermore, the assertion of this inherent nobility of junk implied a vital corollary; to wit, that it wasn't necessary to be possessed of riches or popularity to achieve really astounding results and to help people. Thus the recurring foil in the Three Investigator books of the spoiled rich kid, E. Skinner Norris, as well as the brilliant master stroke of actually setting the Three Investigator's secret headquarters concealed within a junk yard, where they used repaired junk to make the headquarters itself, as well as their own walkie talkies, printing press, concealable cameras, etc., and although such items may not in themselves seem so astounding in an age of cell phones and mp3 players, I think the underlying principle will always ring true. Although I believe I could elucidate many more such themes, I will rest with those three. I hope they will make it a little more clear why I like to make things, and share that making with other people.