A Camera To Paint With

The Camera Obscura

One festive evening while wearily channel-hopping I came on an eye-catching scene. At first glance it seemed that an ageing rock star was taking a fancy to a bashful serving wench in a silly hat.

But before I lost interest, a large box was carried in and set on a table (in the movie). Suitably meek and demure, the girl was very curious indeed. “Do you know what it is?” he asked. She shook her head. He told her to look into the wooden box and threw his cloak over her head. To her astonishment she could see an image of the room they were in – the box was a camera obscura*.

It’s true that it was a bit too advanced for the period with a fairly impressive lens designed maybe 100 years or more later. But this was Hollywood where factual details never get in the way of a good story. And it is a good story.

The movie.
The movie.

In the 1660s the camera obscura (meaning dark room, or dark chamber) was a bit like one of our modern SLRs, but without the neck strap. Because an image of the real world was projected onto a flat surface in a box it could be argued that this methodology represented the very inception of conventional photography. Back then people got a kick out of sitting in a darkened room looking at anything mundane that moved – much as we do today with Coronation Street and X-Factor.

It’s particularly interesting that it was possible to trace the outline of the projected image on a sheet of paper. In time this simple method of drawing a real scene using a box and lens evolved into an amazing device that threw the image onto a sensitised surface that resulted in an accurate and permanent record. Today we use a sensor and electronics, or film and chemicals.

The movie I’d unwittingly hopped into was an adaptation of a novel that touched on the fascinating theory that painter Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura of sorts to create his paintings. His work is said to have distinctive photographic qualities. Well, it would, wouldn’t it.

In fact, a clever professor has written a very interesting book on the subject.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).
The Music Lesson. An early photograph… sort of?
The Music Lesson by Vermeer. An early photograph… sort of?

After a highly detailed examination of The Music Lesson’s perspective and vanishing points, and so on, the professor was able to accurately calculate both the scale of the painting and the height of its viewpoint. Not only that, other paintings by Vermeer seemed to suggest that they too were created in the same room.

The professor meticulously analysed 12 paintings in total and was able to calculate exact measurements and similarities that strongly suggest the artist traced his work before applying more traditional painting methods. Indeed an X-ray of one of these paintings revealed a black and white drawing underneath that is probably an outlined version.

It has been noted that details in Vermeer’s paintings are remarkably accurate. We should expect this if they are based on actual projections. These intriguing details include furniture, elaborate maps and bright highlights.

The professor went further. He created a scale model of the room depicted in the paintings. After this impressive investigation he concluded that there could be only one clear, rational explanation: the original artist projected each scene through a lens.

So what can we say about Vermeer? He was certainly clever and innovative. Possibly a talented cheat? Maybe he knew he was on to something different and tried to keep it to himself as much as possible. He was surely doing all he could to accurately depict reality.

In fact he was much like today’s photographers. In truth we are now working with more advanced camera obscuras, polishing off our unique creations by manipulating them in image-editing software. Vermeer would be astounded.

*The term camera obscura was first used in the early 17th century by German astronomer Johannes Kepler. He used the device in Austria for astronomical observations.



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