Art, Education, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Friday DIY: Create Your Own Camera Obscura

The camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”) is an optical device that projects an upside-down image of what’s around it. A forerunner of the camera, it’s been used by artists from da Vinci to Vermeer to create paintings and drawings. Artworks made with the aid of a camera obscura often have a remarkably photographic vibe, like this light-drenched view of the Bay of Naples from the 1700s. In the Victorian era, the device was used as a seaside attraction—you can still see evidence of this at Santa Monica’s own camera obscura, open to the public since 1907.

The Camera Obscura on Ocean Blvd. in Santa Monica / Jason Festa

The Camera Obscura on Ocean Blvd. in Santa Monica. Photo: Jason Festa, CC BY-NC 2.0

Artist Abelardo Morell takes a unique approach to this device, as he makes entire rooms into camerae obscurae, then uses a long exposure to capture the image. This video explains the effects he achieves with this approach.

Ready to make your own? Here’s a step-by-step activity sheet with a template to help you make your own camera obscura in a cardboard box.

If you want to turn your whole room into a camera obscura, here’s an easy-to-follow tutorial that also describes how how snap a good picture of it.

As you can see, the supplies are simple—cardboard, a plastic ring or lens, a knife, and duct tape. The magic happens when light passes through the lens you’ve cut from one of the boards, following a long-known law of optics to project an upside-down version of the view onto the opposite wall.

Ambitious student Edwin Castro, one of the 8th-graders who participated in the Getty’s Community Photoworks program under the guidance of Morell, tried to make a room-size camera obscura himself, and told me this:

If you put the black plastic on the windows and turn off all the lights and just put one hole, the image outside will come inside, but flipped. I actually tried it—my mom came home and was staring at it, and I was like “Hi Mom!”

Whether or not you have parental permission, making your own camera obscura is a fun optical experiment!

Camera Obscura Image of Santa Maria della Salute in Palazzo Bedroom, Venice, Italy / Abelardo Morell

Camera Obscura Image of Santa Maria della Salute in Palazzo Bedroom, Venice, Italy, 2006, Abelardo Morell. Inkjet print, 40 x 30 in. Lent by the artist, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York. © Abelardo Morell, courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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