Aristotle and the camera obscura

Fall 1999
University of California, Santa Cruz

camera obscura

(384 – 322 B.C.) power of observation was as remarkable as his fortitude
in writing down and systematizing what he observed. One afternoon there
was a partial eclipse of the sun. Aristotle noticed that he if he stood
beneath a tree whose leaves formed a mesh, that he could see an image of
the sun an its eclipse projected onto the ground. He attempted to repeat
the phenomenon using a strainer. It worked. Further experiments showed
him that the smaller the hole in the strainer, the sharper the image produced.

The photographic projection below resembles what Aristotles must have
see through the leaves during the eclipse.

Aristotle even extrapolated the principle responsible for this occurence.
He explained that light rays are straight lines. When light rays proceeding
from a very bright object meet a dark surface with a small hole in it,
the rays passing through the hole do not scatter, but cross and reform
on a surface beyond the hole. The crossing of the rays accounts for the
image produced being upside down. This is the principle behind the camera
obscura, or „dark room.“ And it is the principle behind the camera as well.

Not too much notice was taken of Aristotle’s discovery until Leonardo
da Vinci
wrote of it in the Renaissance. What really kicked the camera
obscura into world-class entertainment, however, was the work of Giambattista
della Porta. He was a fascinating man in his own right, and you’ll be glad
that you clicked here to visit my
page on della Porta
and what’s so special about him.

It was his description of the camera obscura in
a chapter
in Della Porta’s amazing twenty-volume book about everything
Natural Magick
(1558) that did the trick.

Click here for that chapter. It was della
Porta who came up with the idea of fitting the hole in the camera obscura
with a lens.Johannes Kepler also made significant contributions to the
repetoire of lenses and prisms.

Aristotles’s discovery led to two different traditions of inventions,
although the products of both traditions were called camera
, or „dark room.“ In one tradition, the name was quite literal.
A room was made very dark, with opague material covering all the windows.
In one of the window coverings a tiny hole was made, and attention of focus
in the room would be a smooth surfaceon the wall parallel to the the
aperture. Depending on the shape of the room or the building, the hole
might be placed in a wall or on the roof.. Convex and concave mirrors,
often on swivelling diases added to the direction of the camera obscura’s
„vision.“After lens and convex and concave mirrors were added, these camera
obscura became popular venues for tourists, especially in the nineteenth

The other tradition of invention miniaturized the camera into a box
small enough to carry. These instruments were used to capture clear images
of objects onto paper, for the purposes of accurate drawing. These camera
obscura were cameras just waiting for film to be invented.

Be sure to click THIS
to go to my nifty page in which I graphically demonstrate what Aristotle
was talking about and why the peculiar
he noticed beneath a tree during an eclipse is the key to the
photographic culture we are immersed in today.

To the hows and whys of the camera obscura

On Giambattista della Porta

Excerpt from Natural Magick

All Twenty Volumes of Natural
, edited and presented by Major Scott Davis.

To the Persistence
of Vision Module

To the Cinema
and Subjectivity Syllabus

To the camera obscura links

To our ever-growing
annotated catalog of Internet Resources for Cinema Research

To the Plato

To Histories
of Meaning

To the Lacan

To Another Scene [now with
its own search enigne, powered by Looksmart].