Before digital cameras captured our surroundings in ones and zeros, before film trapped light onto emulsion, and long before William Henry Fox Talbot fixed a shadow, the camera obscura allowed people to see their environment in a new way. It’s construction is simple—a darkened box, tent, or room with a small opening on one side. Standing inside of a camera obscura, one can see the outside world projected through the aperture and onto a surface. The scene is reproduced with perfect color, perspective, and clarity, but is inverted and reversed.
Developed in the 10th century by Ibn al-Hayham (known in the west as Alhazen), the camera obscura began as a scientific instrument and became an influential tool for artists, eventually inspiring the photographic cameras that we use today. In the 16th century, astronomers were fond of the camera obscura as a way to observe the sun without damaging their eyes. A few decades later, mathematician Girolamo Cardano replaced the pinhole opening with a lens, allowing for a much brighter picture. The lens required focusing, but opened up a new range of possibilities for the camera obscura as a drawing tool. Artists including Vermeer and Canaletto used the device to trace projected images onto a sheet of paper as a means of understanding perspective.
In the Victorian era, lens manufacturing had increased substantially, making them more cost effective to produce. The revived interest in optics resulted in a sharp rise in popularity for the camera obscura. Many tourist destinations, particularly seaside resorts, began constructing them as a means of entertainment. Although today we have modern cameras at our fingertips to record our travels, camera obscuras continue to function as tourist attractions all over the world.
One such attraction is the Torre Tavira. In operation since in 1994, the Torre Tavira was the first camera obscura installed in modern Spain. Stationed in the official watchtower of Cádiz, a town in the south of Spain, the Torre Tavira is positioned at the city’s highest point of 45 meters above sea level, offering spectacular views from the city center. Looking to connect with other camera obscura enthusiasts, the Torre Tavira team created Camera Obscura World, a website directory of all of the world’s camera obscuras that are accessible to the public.
The site lists 73 camera obscuras, including seasonal installations as well as ones that have been lost. The United Kingdom boasts the most with 20, followed by Germany’s 14. One of the oldest camera obscuras still standing is located in Edinburgh and was installed in 1853. The site also includes maps, facts, installation photos, and listings for workshops. Each unqiue camera obscura installation allows visitors to reflect on the science behind the art of photography and learn to see in new ways.