This story appears in the May 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Something strange and wonderful happens when light enters a dark space through a tiny opening. Aristotle described the phenomenon back in the fourth century B.C.Leonardo in Renaissance Italy sketched the process. In Coney Island and other 19th-century seaside resorts, tourists lined up to see the magical results. Shift to a Boston classroom, the year 1988. Cuban-born Abelardo Morell, teaching an introductory photography course at an art college, was curious to step back in time. On a sunny day, he covered the classroom windows with black plastic, making the space as dark as a cave, cut a dime-size hole in the material, and told his students to watch. Almost instantly the back wall came alive like a movie screen, its surface covered with a fuzzy image of people and cars moving along Huntington Avenue outside. Then the double take: The image was upside down, sky on floor, ground on ceiling, the laws of gravity seemingly gone haywire.
Morell had turned his classroom into a camera obscura, a dark chamber, the Latin name for perhaps the earliest known imaging device and the ancestor of the photographic camera.
Explaining the optical principle behind the device is probably the most complicated thing about it. A camera obscura receives images just like the human eye—through a small opening and upside down. Light from outside enters the hole at an angle, the rays reflected from tops of objects, like trees, coursing downward, and those from the lower plane, say flowers, traveling upward, the rays crossing inside the dark space and forming an inverted image. It seems like a miracle, or a hustler's trick, but it's high school physics. The brain automatically rights the eye's image; in a regular camera a mirror flips the image.
A portable version of the camera obscura—the chamber was now a box, the hole was fitted with a lens—first became popular in the 17th century and was adapted by painters like Johannes Vermeer and Canaletto as a drawing aid. Scientists used it to observe solar eclipses, just as children do today with pinhole cameras made from shoe boxes. To capture a projected image, innovators in the early 1800s began inserting chemically treated paper or metal plates at the back of the boxy camera obscura, and the art of photography was born.
For Morell, a professor of photography, that day in the classroom was a revelation. "When I saw how these savvy, techie students were charmed and disarmed by the image on the wall, I knew this was something very potent."
His first project, conceived as a teaching aid, was to photograph the process itself. The result was "Light Bulb" from 1991. Using simple household materials, Morell illustrated the shape-shifting workings of a pinhole camera, conveying with the elegance of a Dutch still life how a photographic image forms.
Morell next set the challenge of photographing the apparition-like image that forms inside a room that's been turned into a camera obscura. To his knowledge this had never been done before. It took months to engineer the technique, to figure out the right size of hole to allow both brightness and sharpness and to determine the right exposure time, for detail to emerge on film. Then he had to choose a room—with a view.
Morell's breakthrough came in his own house in Quincy, a Boston suburb. He set his large-format view camera on a tripod in his son's bedroom, with only a pinprick of light entering, and opened the shutter. He left the room and waited. For eight hours. The result was mesmerizing. The developed picture showed inverted trees and houses from across the street hovering over the boy's toys like a scene from a fairy tale. "I was giddy," Morell said. "It felt like the moment photography was invented."
From that eureka moment, Morell has gone on to produce with his camera obscura one of the most original and enthralling bodies of work in contemporary photography. His views range from brazen New York City panoramas to warm Italian vistas. A few years ago he switched to color, enjoying its intensity, and began turning images right-side up with a prism.
Replacing film with a digital sensor, which is more light sensitive, he cut exposure times from hours to minutes, permitting him to capture clouds, shadows, and other fleeting atmospherics. He is most excited about his work with a floorless tent, a portable camera obscura that he takes to rooftops or parks or city streets to project images directly onto the ground, giving his latest photos a rough-textured grandeur.
"I want to refresh how people see the world," says Morell. Melting boundaries between landscape and dreamscape, his images wake up our eyes.