When I picked up my daughter from her art class today, I stopped inside the Brookline Arts Center and checked out their new room-sized camera obscura (which means "dark chamber"). I'd never been in one before. Here's how it went:
An old lady is standing outside the black curtain to the room, talking to her husband who is sitting inside. She warns me not to run into him in the dark. I pull back the curtain and step inside a small room, about 10x18 ft, that's been completely blacked out, with the exception of a pencil-sized hole on the exterior side.
Once I close the curtain to the room and my eyes adjust, I can see an image on the white wall across from the pinhole. It's cloudy outside, so it's not particularly bright or colorful, but once I've been in there long enough, I can clearly see the park outside. A large tree dominates, with branches shifting in the breeze. An occasional car drives by, across the top of the image, because the whole scene is upside down.
I stand there, dumbfounded. There's no projector, no computer, no light bulb, just a small hole. It's all about the physics of light and the nature and wonder of the world.
The old lady enters the room, cautiously, and closes the curtain. "Do you see anything yet?" she asks her husband.
"Not yet. I see some shapes, I guess. I don't really get the point."
"I can almost make something out," she says.
"Once your eyes adjust, you'll see more," I say.
But they still don't really get it. In a moment, I step close to the wall, and point out the leaves on the tree. Follow a car driving past with my finger. I remind them that it's all there, but it's upside down. Once I point it out, the whole image starts to come into focus for them. They notice people walking past. She points out the windows and doors on the apartments across the park.
"And it's all coming through that little hole," I say, pointing behind them. They look and are suitably impressed. "We're seeing a entire collection of light, bounced off of just about everything outside, all streaming through that little hole. There's an incredible amount of information about the world stored in the one beam of light, giving a whole slice of the world, just one tiny little piece. It makes for a two dimensional snapshot. The world all together is all those little snapshots, all added together, but this lets us look at just one small piece of it."
We all think about this. There's a lot to look at in this dim image on the wall. "I guess it shows that light is pretty complicated," the old man says.
And I think, I guess it shows the world is pretty complicated.
One dark little room with a tiny hole in a curtain. That's sort of how art works, though, isn't it? When we write a play, it's just one little pinhole on reality and experience, but if the conditions are right, then it can illuminate an entire slice of our existence. And even if we get the play up there, sometimes the audience just doesn't get it, even if it's right there in front of their faces. And sometimes, someone else in the audience will suddenly grasp what's happening and then that understanding flows into the other people. Sometimes.
(check this out for some really cool camera obscura images)