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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      Olympian Census #4: Aphrodite

      Get the stats on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) gods and goddesses on view at the Getty Center.

      Roman name: Venus

      Employment: Goddess of Love and Beauty

      Place of residence: Mount Olympus

      Parents: Born out of sea foam formed when Uranus’s castrated genitals were thrown into the ocean

      Marital status: Married to Hephaestus, the God of Blacksmiths, but had many lovers, both immortal and mortal

      Offspring: Aeneas, Cupid, Eros, Harmonia, Hermaphroditos, and more

      Symbol: Dove, swan, and roses

      Special talent: Being beautiful and sexy could never have been easier for this Greek goddess

      Highlights reel:

      • Zeus knew she was trouble when she walked in (Sorry, Taylor Swift) to Mount Olympus for the first time. So Zeus married Aphrodite to his son Hephaestus (Vulcan), forming the perfect “Beauty and the Beast” couple.
      • When Aphrodite and Persephone, the queen of the underworld, both fell in love with the beautiful mortal boy Adonis, Zeus gave Adonis the choice to live with one goddess for 1/3 of the year and the other for 2/3. Adonis chose to live with Aphrodite longer, only to die young.
      • Aphrodite offered Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman, to Paris, a Trojan prince, to win the Golden Apple from him over Hera and Athena. She just conveniently forgot the fact that Helen was already married. Oops. Hello, Trojan War!

      Olympian Census is a 12-part series profiling gods in art at the Getty Center.

      08/03/15

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