Translating from Latin to mean ‘dark room’ the camera obscura is an optical device of wonder, whereby the external world is trapped and inverted within the room.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, South Australians were an enthusiastic audience for the camera obscura. This optical device – which had a long history, having first been written about in the Greek philosopher Euclid’s Optics about 300BCE – gained popularity among Australian colonists as a source of entertainment. Far from being ‘magic’, the device uses robust principles of science and optics and naturally produces an upside-down image in a room of the view outside. The structures could be built in a fixed location, like Mr Marshall’s camera obscura at Windy Point, or of a more temporary nature, such as those constructed on carts which could be wheeled to exhibitions and fairs. For a small entrance fee, the visitor could marvel at the moving coloured view that appeared on a white surface in the darkened room.
South Australia was home to many temporary camera obscuras, although exact numbers are uncertain. In 1892 the first South Australian camera obscura was erected on the beach near the Glenelg jetty, where it stayed for more than a year.  The attraction was particularly popular on holiday weekends, including Commemoration Day on 28 December (now called Proclamation Day, commemorating the declaration of British settlement at Glenelg in 1836) and over Easter, when it became the ‘principal source of attraction’. It incited much ‘wonder and amusement’  and contributed to an atmosphere in which one visitor remarked of being overwhelmed with ‘too much joy’.
South Australia’s history has perfectly coincided with the photographic age, as the colony was founded in the same year that photography was invented in 1836.8 From the 1860s the market burgeoned for portrait photography, whether in a studio or by a travelling photographer, partly due to the introduction of technology that allowed photographers to print images on paper from a glass negative. Affixed to attractive cards, these pocket-sized portraits, or cartes de visite, were relatively cheap to produce and immensely popular with the upper and middle classes. Photography was close to the cultural heart of South Australians, who had an appetite for photographic ‘views’ of their state – from its landscape to the development of built infrastructure in industries such as mining, shipping and agriculture. Amid this enthusiasm, the camera obscura fulfilled a function in understanding the landscape and marvelling at the state’s newly built cities and towns.
Text from Robyn Stacey: Ray of Light catalogue, written by Curator, Alice Clanachan, 2018
. The photographer George Freeman erected the camera obscura on the beach at Glenelg in 1892.
. ‘Glenelg’, South Australian Register, 1 April 1893, p. 6.
. ‘Glenelg’, South Australian Register, 27 December 1892, p. 6.
. ‘Aquatic fete at Glenelg’, Evening Journal, 24 February 1893, p. 3.
Sydney-based photographer, Robyn Stacey is interested in the juncture between art and science, nostalgia and analogue technology.
Stacey has worked in photography since the 1980s and in the early 2000s began photographing historic collections of natural history specimens – from insects and butterflies to the flora of colonial gardens. At that time she was interested in an analogue approach to her work and created dramatic photographic still lifes using studio conditions and lighting. Since 2013, Stacey has used the camera obscura to create large-scale photographs. In 2013 she turned a Melbourne hotel room into a camera obscura and photographed the surreal and distorted interior, in which a lone figure was illuminated by the panoramic view that wrapped around the room’s walls and ceilings.
In 2018, using the camera obscura again, Stacey depicted the city of Adelaide as it had never been seen before. Stacey selected many sites across the city, including Carrick Hill, the SAHMRI Building, The Cedars at Hahndorf, Parliament House, Port Adelaide, the Brookman Building at the University of South Australia and the South Australian Institute Building, converting these spaces into temporary camera obscura. Stacey installed a camera obscura by affixing a lens onto a small area of a window and blocking out all other light sources to the room. The result was an inverted view of the external surroundings, cast onto one of the walls in the room. Stacey then photographed each of these views – street scenes, buildings and gardens – as they appeared in each room.
By taking photography back to its most analogue of forms, Stacey becomes, quite literally, a painter of light. Using a slow shutter speed to capture each camera obscura’s projected image at its most vivid, the artist reveals Adelaide landmarks cemented in place and time. For example, her photograph of the SAHMRI building and North Terrace skyline was taken before the new university buildings were constructed, while the hotel room she chose to work in at The Lighthouse Wharf Hotel has since been renovated.
‘The magic of the camera obscura is that it makes us question what we take for granted – the everyday experience is presented upside down and in reverse, mimicking the way an image forms on the retina. In some photographs cars drive over the ceiling and the sky and clouds cover the floor… it’s like being in a movie where you are in the world but removed from it at the same time,
- Look at the sites depicted in Stacey’s photographs. Other than being taken in Adelaide, what do these places have in common?
- In the artist’s own words, these bewildering photographs become ‘a mash-up of inside and outside’. In pairs, select one photograph by Stacey and discuss the connection between the outside scene and the building interior?
As a class, research the significant advancements in photographic processes that have occurred since the invention of the camera in the 1800s to the present day. In pairs select a technique or camera. As a class, create a visual timeline to illustrate the variations of approaches to photography. Create a replica of the camera or process from that era.
For example, when examining the invention of the Kodak Box Brownie students might:
- Research a photographer who used the Brownie. Find examples of his/her work and compare how the visual quality of the photographs differs from today’s digital prints.
- Appropriate images from that era (consider style, colour or composition). Students may use Photoshop to re-create.
- Re-create a replica Brownie
- Present in their classroom, a physical timeline of photography using the images and objects created as a result of their research.
Stacey has included The Cedars, home to Hans Heysen after 1912, in her series. The oil painting Red Gold, 1913 by Hans Heysen depicts the junction between Hahndorf and Mt Barker, not far from The Cedars. Light plays an important part in both artists’ practice. Although the photographic process has often been referred to as ‘painting with light’, Heysen was well renowned for capturing the beauty of early morning light with paint. In groups discuss how light is a fundamental component in the work of Heysen and Stacey.
Make your own camera obscura.
- Aim the pinhole toward an interesting building at your school. If you move closer or further away, does this image change? In what way does this image differ from the building itself?
- Using the camera obscura, draw the basic shapes and lines on the building. After removing the paper, you may use this sketch for the basis of a larger piece with an emphasis on one or two point perspective.
Both Heysen and Stacey have captured the Australian landscape, emphasising the grandeur of the eucalyptus trees. Instead of looking wide, like Heysen and Stacey, look closer. Take a photograph of a eucalyptus tree. Use a viewfinder to crop your image, highlighting texture and colour. Use your photo as a reference for a larger painting.
Record a soundscape to accompany Stacey’s works. This sound may include spoken text, a poem or your own free writing to complement the imagery.
Robyn Stacey speaks about her work and the technology of the camera obscura