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. [1] 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’.[2] It incited much ‘wonder and amusement’ [3] and contributed to an atmosphere in which one visitor remarked of being overwhelmed with ‘too much joy’.[4]

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. 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

[1]. The photographer George Freeman erected the camera obscura on the beach at Glenelg in 1892.
[2]. ‘Glenelg’, South Australian Register, 1 April 1893, p. 6.
[3]. ‘Glenelg’, South Australian Register, 27 December 1892, p. 6.
[4]. ‘Aquatic fete at Glenelg’, Evening Journal, 24 February 1893, p. 3.