In the 19th century, a seaside resort vacation wasn’t complete until you visited the local camera obscura and marveled at the surrounding beach and ocean projected through a pinhole. The technology of the camera obscura is ancient, going back beyond Aristotle, although it’s only recently that people have started building room-sized experiences with the optic trick, which uses sunlight to shine an upside-down view of the exterior (unless you add a mirror to flip it). Currently, the Gowanus Loft in Brooklyn is hosting Camera Obscura/Gowanus by George Del Barrio and Ashton Worthington, where, like those Victorian bathers decades ago, you can experience the strange wonder of the inverted outside world. Instead of sand and water, it’s the industrial scene of the elevated F/G train tracks, and the roads below.
Unlike Del Barrio’s previous Photographic Monument projects through the Vanderbilt Republic, such as last year’s collaboration with Colin Bowring to illuminate the underside of the elevated train bridge, the technology behind Camera Obscura/Gowanus is relatively simple. Anyone can build a camera obscura (National Geographic has a succinct video tutorial online); it’s just a matter of blocking out the light while leaving a pinhole that pierces through, and setting up a surface onto which the light passing through it can reflect.
On entering the Gowanus Loft, you’re submerged in darkness. The by-reservation visits are a recommended 45 minutes. This is to allow your eyes to adjust, as what first feels like near pitch black slowly reveals a room filled with camera obscuras in all corners. The largest consumes three walls, with the dominating lattice of the elevated bridge on which trains silently go by; smaller pinholes can be discovered around corners, some showing the top of a building, or just the sky.
Del Barrio and Worthington are hardly the only artists to work with the camera obscura. Zoe Leonard’s “945 Madison Avenue” on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum’s former building was a highlight of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Land artist Chris Drury built a series of outdoor camera obscuras out of natural materials like cedar logs and stones. The Photographers Gallery in London had one installed on its top floor in 2012, and in 2013, Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder installed Topsy-Turvy in Madison Square Park, which included a portal to view the surrounding Flatiron District. Marja Pirilä has built camera obscuras out of snow, and incorporated them as settings into her photographs, a process also used by Abelardo Morell for his “roomscape” photographs. There’s something about this unexpected contrast between the interior and exterior world that we find endlessly fascinating.
The camera obscura reached the height of its popularity as an attraction in the Victorian age, where the wonder at scientific innovation coincided with a rise in tourist mobility. They were especially common at seaside resorts in Great Britain — according to the site for the Edinburgh Camera Obscura, the Victorians especially enjoyed “spying on courting couples.” The Dumfries Museum in Scotland has the oldest continuously operating camera obscura, dating to 1836, while an elaborate one from 1892 on the Isle of Man has 11 lenses. The camera obscura eventually migrated around the world, often built of temporary material that could easily be transported, although some were intended to be more permanent. You can still visit one in San Francisco from 1946 that’s shaped like a giant camera.
What makes each camera obscura experience special is the way it changes how visitors see a familiar environment. In Gowanus, it lets viewers appreciate the small movements of a Brooklyn neighborhood, whether the winding path of a train that seems suspended in the sky, or a lone pedestrian ambling through the early light of morning.