The camera obscura is a darkened box or room, with a pinhole opening in one side or wall that permits outside light to enter. Once the light strikes the opposite side, it forms an image of the external world—reversed and upside-down, but faithful in color, movement, and the distance between objects.
From antiquity, the device was used to track planetary movements and safely observe the sun, while Realist painters in the 16th and 17th centuries used the camera obscuraas a way to reproduce scenes with dimensional accuracy. Some researchers even date its use to the paleolithic period, when a “natural camera obscura” may have inspired cave paintings, the earliest art form of all.
But the camera obscura has also functioned as a root metaphor for human cognition. For philosopher John Locke, it served as an analogy of the mind, while others were less trusting of the device’s truthful mediation of reality. “The circumstances within which a man lives and works [are] a fabrication of his brain,” Karl Marx once wrote. “Men go through their lives seeing as through a ‘camera obscura’—an illusion.”
The simple machine, then, came to animate an epistemological debate about the relationship between what we see and what we know. Such tensions slyly emerge in the works of Richard Learoyd the British photographer who, since 2004, has made portraits, landscapes, and still lifes with his homemade, room-sized camera obscura, a selection of which are on view at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery. When you look at a Learoyd print, you absorb not only the subject pictured (a young woman; a bouquet of flowers), but also the process through which it was rendered. Each image, in other words, is an interpretation of a person or place through a specific technique of physics and optics.
Consider Learoyd’s portraits of a woman named Agnes, taken between 2007 and 2014. Learoyd made these photographs using two rooms: one filled with light where his subject sits; the other, a dark chamber fitted with a lens. After composing the scene, Learoyd walks inside the camera and attaches a large piece of silver-dye bleach paper onto the wall opposite the lens. He exposes the paper before feeding it into a color-processing machine.