Montana State University

Camera obscura installation debuts on MSU campus

April 2, 2013 -- Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service


Montana State University students Aaron Hyatt and Katie Boyce watch the goings on about campus through the camera obscura they helped build as part of a multidisciplinary course offered jointly through the School of Architecture and the School of Film and Photography. An ancient technology, a camera obscura functions by focusing the light of the outside world onto a surface in a darkened chamber. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN - Inside the small octagon of Montana State University's recently opened camera obscura installation, as a curious group gazed up at the live image projecting onto a scrim above their heads, an inquisitive voice rose from the darkness.

"Someone asked if it was a webcam," said Aaron Hyatt, a senior photography student from Hamilton who had a hand in building the camera obscura as part of a multidisciplinary undergraduate class jointly offered by the School of  Architecture and the School of Film and Photography.

There is a simple answer, said Hyatt and other students who built the art installation as part of the President's Fine Art Series: Not quite.

The 80-square-foot building and the optical conjuring of the camera obscura contain none of the electronic technological marvels of the digital age.

The installation is not networked to the Internet in any way. There is no wiring or electricity at all. This analogue technology predates the discovery of the chemical processes that gave the world photography by thousands of years. It is said that Aristotle developed and experimented with a camera obscura in the 4th century BC.

Now, half a world and two millennia removed from ancient Greece, the MSU community is discovering the camera obscura, which appeared between Gaines Hall and Romney Gymnasium during the last half of March.

The camera obscura is simply a small, dark room, with a periscope opening at the top, and a mirror and camera lens directing and focusing the light of the outside world onto the scrim that is both ceiling and canvas. Like any camera, what it reveals depends on where it sits and what direction the lens is pointed, though its image is always rendered upside down and in reverse.

People working out on the machines by the windows of Hosaeus Fitness Center's north side bear witness as passersby approach the building uncertainly, disappear inside and reappear blinking in astonishment moments later.

"It's really satisfying to see how people are drawn to it," said Katie Boyce, a senior architecture student from Juneau, Alaska. "We just really want people to appreciate it as much as we do."

Having built what they believe is the first camera obscura in Montana, the students are eager to share their creation with the community.

After two weeks on campus, they moved the camera obscura to the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture, where it has been on hand for some of the Celebrating Einstein events, includin the opening "Black (W)hole" reception. On Friday, it will return to locations on campus, though both the professors and students envision sharing the project with other MSU campuses and Montana communities in the coming months and years.

The instructors for the course, Jonathan Long, adjunct professor of photography, and Bill Clinton, adjunct professor of architecture, agreed the key ingredient for the project has been its multidisciplinary approach. The 18 students enrolled in the three-credit class come from photography, architecture, art and/or engineering majors.

"There was a great cross pollination taking place within this diverse group of students," Clinton said. "And they found that joy that happens in creating something and going through the design phase all the way to building it."

In addition to learning the history and science behind camera obscura, the students divided into three teams, with each group conceptualizing and finalizing a design.

Once a plan was chosen - some aspects of each design were used in the final building - the students again formed committees to tackle the logistics of bringing the project to fruition by their March deadline. Since their design outstripped their budget, the students turned to the community to raise funds and in-kind donations of materials.

"They got it done and they did it within the confines of practical realities," Long said. "For me as a teacher, this has been the closest thing I've seen to offering students a real-world experience."

In an evening event supported by the President's Fine Arts Series, "The Art of Science--The Science of Art," the group was even treated to a grand opening that featured a presentation from Abelardo Morell, one of the world's foremost camera obscura artists.

The students are also learning that recognition can come from unexpected quarters. Long said he recently received an email from an artist in Uganda planning a camera obscura installation for a Ugandan art festival. The artist wondered if MSU's students might be willing to share their camera obscura knowledge.

Long and Clinton said they were proud to see their students basking in some recognition for their efforts.

"They started off with nothing and we said to them, 'Go build a camera obscura," Clinton said. "I know that seems impossible at the time, but they saw very quickly how the parts add up and great things start happening that end up with the creation of this amazing whole."