An inverted image of New York City's Central Park in fall splashes across walls and ceiling in a photograph using the technique of camera obscura. Darken a room, make a small opening for light, and let the outside come in.
"View of Central Park Looking North—Fall," 2008
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.