The Light Side!

Here at Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura, we like to think of ourselves as a little bit mischievous.  It comes from working in a place that is essentially five floors of fun filled fascinations.  When one is encouraged to become a child most days of the week, one cannot help but slip slightly to the naughty side.  I will be blunt, we at the Camera Obscura are on the dark side.  This is not solely our fault, but rather the fault of the Camera itself.  The name camera obscura comes from Latin and it translates as ‘dark room’;

Camera = room           Obscura = dark*

*(in Latin, the adjective goes after the noun, like in modern day French and Italian)

Actually, the English word ‘camera’ comes from camera obscura.  So, when you take a picture with a camera, you are actually taking a picture with a ‘room.’  FACT!

But as Isaac Newton and Yoda taught us, for every force there is an equal and opposite. For the camera obscura, it is the ‘camera lucida’, or light room. So, how does this relate to Pompeii (2014) I hear you ask? Let’s start with how the Camera Lucida works.

Beyond the name, the camera obscura and camera lucida do not share much in common.  Camera obscuras are big, need the room to be dark, and project a detailed image onto a white surface.  In comparison, the camera lucida is small, portable, needs a lot of light, does not project an image, and works best with a dark surface.  Like the camera obscura, a tilted mirror is used, usually to a 45° angle, which reflects an image onto a horizontal surface. Consequently, camera lucidas were very popular with artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The mirror would superimpose/reflect the object or scene to be drawn onto the artist’s drawing surface, allowing the artist to see both the drawing surface and image at the same time.  Confused?  Here is a demonstration:

Camera Lucida

The camera lucida’s portability and ability to recreate very detailed images made them very popular amongst both the professional and amateur painter.  More than this, though, the camera lucida has helped shape our image of Roman life, and brought the discoveries of two ancient cities (Pompeii and Herculaneum) to the world.  This was through the work of Sir William Gell.


Forum of Pompeii. Illustration by William Gell (1777–1836)

Sir William Gell (1777-1836) was an artist who pioneered a more accurate form of scientific drawing for archaeology by using the camera lucida. His work was massively influential in the perception and dissemination of the image of Pompeii and the Roman world. He effectively demonstrated how technology can be used in both art and science to great success, and it is due to his work and use of the camera lucida that we know what Pompeii looks like. And that will have certainly come in handy during the making of the film ‘Pompeii’ (in cinemas from 30th April!).

pompeii_2014_movie-852x480 (2)

Pompeii (2014)

So, when you next visit the Camera Obscura, remember that you are seeing only one side of the story, the dark side of the moon (as it were!).


Written by: Jen Cresswell





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