The Mind’s Eye: How the Camera Obscura Changed the World

The word camera (as in, my iPhone camera sucks), comes from the Latin: Camera Obscura, which literally means dark room. This was eventually shortened to just camera, and indeed, the first cameras were like little rooms. Little, dark, box-sized rooms. Before we knew how to capture images on film, we were able to project images onto other surfaces, using only a light and pinhole. For thousands of years we have used those images to create drawings and paintings. It wasn’t until the photographic process was invented that we were able to paint those images with light. The word photography means “to write with light.”

There is a natural phenomenon that occurs when you project an image from one place to another through a pinhole–a perfect replica of that image can be projected onto a wall or other surface, except that it’s upside down.

Did you know that your eye sees everything upside down for this same reason? An image of the outside world is projected onto the surface of your retina–upside down. Thank god the brain provides the helpful service of reversing that for us.

The resourceful humans, possibly as early as the time of Paleolithic cave paintings, discovered a way to project images onto walls and surfaces, and then paint or draw those images. On cave walls, through tiny holes in the cloth of tents, on walls and canvases and finally onto glass plates covered with chemicals which react to light.

Leonardo da Vinci was obsessed with the Camera Obscura. He drew and painted many pictures of it, and also was the first to discover that the human eye worked the same way, by dissecting the eyes of cadavers and studying how the lenses worked. He drew a number of different devices to harness this phenomenon, but we don’t know if he ever built any of them.

Fast forward three hundred years, when a young French artist, scientist, and inventor named Nicéphore Niépce, who went on the create the earliest known photographs, was experimenting with lithography, the process of using chemicals to create etchings on paper, metal, or wood. As he stood by the window working, he looked out and began to wonder what would happen if he tried etching with light. Little did he know that he would go on to invent a technology that would turn our world upside down.

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