Seeing beyond the Dark Room: Representations of the Camera Obscura

This image gallery explores the unstable place of the camera obscura in Romantic visual culture and offers a critical revision of Jonathan Crary’s central thesis in Techniques of the Observer (1990). In this text, Crary contends that the camera obscura is a model of rational, disembodied vision that is later subsumed by a modern, subjective mode of observation. The varied representations of the optical apparatus in the Romantic period, however, complicate his notion that the camera obscura as a principal model of observation was roundly discarded in the first quarter of the nineteenth century in favor of a conception of modern vision based on new optical technologies. The images which make up the gallery are illustrated plates drawn from a wide variety of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books on science and optics, ranging from dense theoretical texts intended for the scientifically erudite reader to the popular genre of rational recreations for the curious dilettante. Illustrations and diagrams of the camera obscura were often shown with other types of optical devices on the illustrated plates, such as fantastic, illusion-producing devices like the magic lantern, as well as highly abstracted scientific diagrams. The juxtaposition of related yet distinct images of the camera obscura found on each plate in the gallery will reflect the position of the camera obscura in relation to other optical equipment and to various considerations of vision. For example, the movement from Ferguson’s spare, diagrammatic rendering of the camera obscura’s inner mechanisms to M. Guyot’s lavishly colored illustration of a table-like camera obscura provokes uncertainty about the position of the camera obscura. The placement of the camera obscura within a variety of other optical devices and diagrams in the images and texts further suggests that the Romantic preoccupation with vision was not limited to a single apparatus for the formation and articulation of a modern visuality.


Beth Zinsli