The history of the Camera Obscura is a difficult past to uncover. This difficulty is due to several factors. Firstly, there seems to have been similar innovations done at different times and places. This lead to an overlap of idea and technologies. Secondly, texts from the past often don’t have an accurate record of events. Many of the texts studied have to be interpreted and translated which may also contribute to confusion. Lastly, from what one can assume is due to the “spectacle” of the projectionist. Many of the tricks and tools were kept secret in order to maintain the magic of their craft. As a result much of the knowledge is difficult to recover. With these notions in mind it becomes easier to understand the history of the Camera Obscura.

What follows is a brief history of the Camera Obscura as illustrated by three texts. Firstly, A History of Pre-Cinema: Volume 1 by Stephen Herbert sheds some light on the technical aspects of the device. The book contains two articles form the Magazine of Science demonstrating how the device works and its uses (in these texts primarily as a drawing aid). Herbert’s book also offers an article from a publication called Hobbies. This shows how to physically make a Camera Obscura. Although these articles are relatively recent (1839, 1896) they offer a better understanding of the device and its complexities. The next two texts attempt create an accurate timeline of the Camera Obcsura. The great art of light and shadow: archaeology of the cinema by Laurent Mannoni and Richard Crangle focuses on the history of the Obscura with an emphasis on cinema. On the other hand Vermeer’s Camera a book by Philip Steadman looks at the Obscura as a device for painting. Both texts have a similar timeline, but with some mild differences. Taken together one can infer a reasonably accurate timeline.


Images taken from A History of Pre-Cinema: Volume 1 by Stephen Herbert.

Magazine of Science
In the articles from Magazine of Science the Camera Obscura is considered to be a drawing aid. The first article outlines how a Camera Obscura could be created in a large scale and illustrates how this could be done in a summer home. The second article outlines how once could draw within such a space. These texts were very useful in the early stages of the project. They both have a very good description of the device itself and describe the early experience of viewers.

Here we are offered instructions to build a small scale Camera Obscura used for drawing. This step by step guide proved very useful to the project. The instructions were even useful in locating supplies for the Camera Obscura.
Both of these texts help to illustrate the Obscura at the technologies end point. They were also helpful in understanding What is a Camera Obscura?
Camera Obscura Timeline (As taken from The great art of light and shadow and Vermeer’s Camera)

Both text state that the beginning of the Camera Obscura was in the time of Aristotle. Steadman conveys that it was while Aristotle was standing under a tree, he was at times able to see a projection of the sun through the branches on the ground. This he argues was one of the first Camera Obscuras. (384-322 BC) After this the use of the Camera Obscura became a device for looking at solar eclipses. Utilizing this one could watch what was going on without damaging their eyes. This would be the purpose of the device for quite some time. It was not until Da Vinci (1490) that someone thought of a use for it in art. Da Vinci first was also one of the first to develop an understanding of how the Obscura worked. His device (which looks much like the Camera Obscura we know) consisted of a dark room with a pinhole. In order to create a better drawing surface he used a rear projection screen so that his shadow would not be in the way of the image. This use of the Obscura also allowed great advancements to the field of perspective in art. The artist could easily see how the image was to look like in perspective.
The next advancement to the Camera Obscura would come in the 16th century when the use of bi-convex lenses within the device became commonplace. This allowed the image to much brighter as well as in focus. With the incorporation of lenses we also now the beginning of handheld devices that are able to travel. This gives the user much more freedom and the device becomes much more widespread. Shortly after this period other lenses are added to these devices to correct the image.

Also at this time we see acts like that of Della Porta in which actors would perform on sets in view of the Obscura and people would come to watch just like the modern day movie theatre. This advancement foreshadowed other innovations such as the magic lantern or the theatre optique. The spectacle of Porta’s shows also began a movement in which tricksters would add supernatural elements to their shows in order to scare and confuse spectators (for profit).

It is here (early 1700’s) we see the final advancements to the Camera Obscura both as a drawing/painting aid as well as a projection device. The use of ground glass to act as a screen, mirrors to correct the image, and lenses to focus the image become common place. These principals act upon both the small hand held scale and the large room sized devices. From this point onward the technology of the Obscura advances little. In the realm of painting it slowly gets phased out for more abstract works. (Hockney) In the field of optics however one can see the direct influence to the advancement of modern film, photography, and projectors. (In fact the use of the mirror in the device even foreshadows the SLR camera used today.)