Camera Obscura

On Thursday I walked out of the eye doctor’s office, the sun painfully blinding as the light showered unhindered into my dilated pupils. If the image were a sound it would have been like the buzzing of actively arcing power lines; the whole of the world seemed to vibrate achingly as I attempted to squint the light away with shuddering eyelids. Even after I donned my sunglasses, the world was still too radiant to endure without additional squinting. It was an incredible sensation, though I’m certainly glad my non-medicated pupils work to lessen the impact of the sun’s visible light.

IMG_0195_smallWhile in the doctor’s office after the dilation took effect, I was fascinated by the lenses used to peer at the inside of my eyeball. The doctor shined light into my open pupil and I perceived reflections of my own (happily healthy) retina. These reflections are apparently referred to as “Purkinje images,” various reflections into and out of the eye. When I got home, we set up the tripod and camera to photograph some closeups of my dilated pupil. I wanted to capture some of these Purkinje images with the wide reflective backdrop of my gaping pupil. It was a fun time (though eye-watering at times forcing my eye to stay open) and we managed to get a few pretty compelling shots.

It occurred to me after this experience just how much our eyes work to keep out radiant light. The whole apparatus is amazing in its simplicity and efficiency. The camera obscura, a basic point that allows light to reflect inward (an aperture) and then be interpreted or preserved on a surface. Our eye allows our brain to sense the wavelengths of radiation through our optic nerve. In a standard camera, the upside-down resulting image passing through the lens and aperture is reflected with mirrors and preserved in some fashion (either on film or digitally). For me the incredible aspect of the basic physical property of light that makes the magic of the camera obscura (and of “sight”) possible rests in the multiple interpretations of that image, the dialogue between radiant light and the directional awareness of the experience.

The ghostly camera obscura image.An artist whose work “captures” this complexity well is Abelardo Morell. He photographs simple projections of the surrounding world onto basic backdrops, usually living rooms and bedrooms, using only the principle of the camera obscura in order to project the image–that is, essentially keeping out a great deal of incoming radiant light and choosing a specific aperture point. The entirety of his images in this fashion are technically images of actual radiant light, but the subject of the image is usually not captured primarily by the main photography directly. It’s fascinating stuff.

CO3There’s a wealth of other conceptual engagement of the camera obscura in the academic realm, but the one that has caught my interest of late is the Camera Obscura journal. It is an independent literary journal and blog featuring contemporary literary fiction and photography. Contributors include established as well as emerging writers and photographers, and there’s some pretty cool stuff on their site. Finally, the largest camera obscura that I know of in the world is in Aberystwyth, U.K., at the Cliff Railway. The aperture of the camera is 14 inch lens takes a birds eye view of more than 1000 square miles of land and seascape as it rotates 360 degrees sweep around the Aberystwyth area and reflects its light onto the circular screen in the darkened viewing gallery of the the building.

Overall, my most recent pupil dilation was a fascinating experience that made me appreciate the camera and the eyeball that much more. The next time I get my eye dilated I’m going to try to reflect light on my retina and take the picture in low light. Hopefully that will give me access to some other Purkinje reflections.

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