| Camera Obscura |
By Abelardo Morell
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By Luc Sante
Victor Hugo's poem "La Conscience" tells how Cain, after murdering Abel, found himself stalked by the eye of God. Everywhere he went, wood or field, mountain or valley, God stared down at him from the sky. His sons built a house for him, but God looked in through the window. Then they built him a city, but God's eye penetrated the maze of streets. Finally they made him a tomb, but "the eye was in the tomb and was looking at Cain" (L'oeil était dans la tombe et regardait Caïn). This last line (familiar to me because my father was given to declaiming bits of classical French poetry the way others might burst into snatches of song) was the first thing I thought of when I learned of the phenomenon of the camera obscura. I suddenly could imagine Cain in his inkblack sepulchre, one thin reed of light poking through from a chink between the stones, and that point hitting the opposite wall, and its diameter spreading there to reveal an enormous angry eye, seen upside down.
The camera obscura seems little short of miraculous, even after the optical rationale has been explained. That one pinhole of light can carry all the visual information of a landscape into a darkened room is still, after many centuries, unknown to the great majority of humans and surprising when they learn of it. That one half of the essential principle of photography is both ancient and technology-free still astounds. That Abelardo Morell was able to photograph the thing in action, in effect producing photographs of a photographic process, and that he has done so with such lapidary and transformative eloquence, is little short of breathtaking. It is a bit as if he had taken his camera into the dream state and emerged with proof of what he saw there. The pictures are shocking, in the most pleasing way.
The principle of the camera obscura has been known since ancient times. The first mention in surviving literature is by a Chinese philosopher of the fifth century BC; the second is by Aristotle. The device has long been employed for scientific purposes, such as for safely observing solar eclipses, but artists must have been fascinated by it from the start. Leonardo da Vinci, who had a foot in both camps, gave detailed accounts of the process in his notebooks. Beginning in the seventeenth century paintersVermeer and Canaletto, most famouslymade use of a portable box model as a device for tracing images, leading eventually to the peculiar twentieth-century imputation that they had somehow cheated in their work. As time went on the technology of the camera obscura was elaborated; it acquired f rst a convex lens and then a set of deflecting mirrors for targeting the image onto a screen and turning it right side up. In the nineteenth century camera obscurae, almost invariably housed in small octagonal wooden pavilions, became a feature of seaside resorts and other tourist destinationsthey were in effect early cinemas, and their attraction did not immediately wane with the rise of motion pictures, since their images possessed the advantage of being in color and at least potentially spontaneous. The vogue had its voyeuristic aspect; popular humor capitalized on the device's ability to catch illicit couples cavorting together, like an instrument of the paparazzi. Although interest slackened in the forward-looking 1920s, it has revived since. The sense of wonder produced by the camera obscura remains evergreen, despite the many competing marvels developed by scientific process. The camera obscura is a natural phenomenon that seems to contradict what we know of the laws of nature. It is a low-budget, endlessly repeatable miracle, uncanny in its very mundaneness, a hidden pocket in the fabric of the senses.
Morell's photographs capture the camera obscura in its most primal form: a simple pinhole through the masking on a windowor, in a couple of virtuosic photos, in a cardboard box. Other photographers working today have employed the device as an instrument, but their pictures show only the results, tightly framed and right side up; as far as I am aware, Morell is unique in rendering the process in its complete setting, thus bringing out the full strangeness of the experience. The outside comes inside, unaltered and unabridged but wrenched out of context by the apparently simple matter of being turned upside down. What may ostensibly be Paris or London or the suburbs of Boston becomes the dream state, a thought bubble filtering the known world through joy or rage or exasperation or bemusement. Hovering upside down on the wall of a room, a cityscape becomes the room's wish or its torment. I know you but you don't know me, says the bedroom to the streets of Brookline. You weigh heavily on my conscience, says the boardroom to the London docklands. I envy what you possess in such abundance, says the office to the expanse of Central Park. The motif perfectly encapsulates the premise of the inner life: It comprises the outside world, transformed and freighted. The eye takes in everything of the world, but subjectivity ensures that the world arrives in the mind changed by the experience of being seen.
Thus these pictures, which enact the primal scene of photography, also depict in profound and profoundly simple metaphorical terms the central contradiction of the art, little understood even now. Since its beginnings the ruling myth of photography has concerned its alleged transparency: the camera does not lie. We have spent the last century and a half trying to unlearn this canardnot only can the camera lie at will, but whatever it sees is determined by the eye and the hand that control it. Any number of photographers can snap the same subject, and no matter how sparse its information no two depictions will be identical. The camera is, on the surface, an objective tool composed of a fixed series of indisputable elements: Light comes in here when the gate is opened, registers there and is fixed thusly. The mystery resides in how the conscious and unconscious mind of the operator alters the data of light on their way from the world to the receiving plate. Is the camera obscura an apparatus without an operator? Is its objectivity absolute? Not quite, since the location of the room and the location of the pinhole are both products of choice, but it does come as close to unmediated as any capture of light can be. The metaphor, then, is purely notionalthe upside-downness of the recorded image is nothing but a side effect of the way light is bent when it is forced through a small hole. In Morell's photographs, however, this merely contingent aspect becomes operative, an active representation of how the world is stirred and shaken by the perceiving mind. No sight can survive the passage to the retina without exchanging some of its baggage.
Even so, what always fascinates most immediately about photographywhat appeals to the unlettered, gaping peasant in all of usis its fidelity to the known world. We look at these pictures and marvel that the apparent alchemical transformation of the known world has failed to elide its detailsLook, all the windows of the houses are in place, and you can even see the shading in the clouds in the sky at the bottom of the world! That the camera can confirm simple, dumb, elemental points of visual information we have already arrived at through the simple expedient of opening our eyes becomes a marvel, a detailed replication, the cathedral of Milan faithfully reproduced out of matchsticks. This aspect, too, inheres in Morell's photographs, along with the premise that the eye in one instant takes in much more than the mind can conceivably process in the same instant, which is why photography as a medium of fixed reproduction was a necessary invention, since we need to look again and again, to stop time in its passage. These photographs by Abelardo Morell, like Zen koans or Zeno's paradox, are infinitely simple. They can be taken in by a single glance and appreciated all at once, but they continue to unfold, with layer upon layer of meaning, rendering the entire history of the human engagement with sight and the human desire to preserve vision. They return the art of photography to first principles and show us that we had only hastily considered what we always thought we knew.
Excerpted from Camera Obscura, by Abelardo Morell. Copyright (c) 2004 by Luc Sante. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top