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“Who would believe that so small a space could contain the image of all the universe?” Leonardo da Vinci wrote in 1500. He was praising the camera obscura, a photographic instrument that was, by then, nearly 2,000 years old. Most of us know how it works: light penetrates a box or dark room through a hole, strikes a mirror or some other surface, then crisply projects the outside landscape onto a canvas or wall. Though scientifically explainable, it seems almost magical.
Marja Pirilä has been fascinated with the camera obscura process since the 1980s, when she worked extensively with pinhole cameras and even built a few cabin-sized contraptions. “Light for me is the most important thing in photography,” she told Hyperallergic. “I never get tired of observing it.”
In 1996, while reading Aperture, she came across Abelardo Morell‘s black-and-white photographs made using the method. The Cuban-born photographer had set up his large-format camera inside various New York City apartments, covered their windows in perforated black plastic, and focused his lens on the pictures spilling in. The otherworldly images, some of which took up to 10 hours to expose, simultaneously captured the apartments and the views from their windows.
Seeing Morell’s work inspired Pirilä to attempt a similar series of color portraits, now on view in a retrospective at the Kuopio Art Museum in Finland. Since models can’t sit still for so long, the photographer figured out a way to shoot using a simple lens that reduces exposure time to mere minutes. Over the years that followed, she traveled throughout her native Finland, as well as in Norway, Italy, and France, taking ethereal photographs that record, in just one shot, an individual, his or her bedroom, and the scenery outside.
Though Pirilä’s images capture people and their physical environments, she views them as gateways into subconscious realms — somehow conjuring both the Surrealist paintings of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte and the psychedelic creations of the 1960s counterculture. She explained that the more she works in this vein, the more the process begins to feel like an excursion into a mental terrain filled with memories, reveries, and fears. Human beings are, after all, walking camera obscuras: we all spend our lives making sense internally of our experiences in the external world. As Pirilä suggested, “I think the landscape seen from our window is not only outside, but also within us.”