Camera Obscuras and Brisbane at Cloud Land show

For Robyn Stacey’s upcoming show Cloud Land at the Museum of Brisbane I have written an essay about the history of camera obscuras, Brisbane and Robyn. It was great to get the opportunity to spend a little more Trove-time looking into Brisbane’s own Whites Hill Camera Obscura, to the remains of which which I had previously made a pilgrimage. Thanks to the research of the Museum of Brisbane team we were able to find lovely, high resolution images of Brisbane’s one and only camera obscura:

From the tourist guide 'The Pocket Brisbane', 1913

From the tourist guide ‘The Pocket Brisbane’, 1913

Whites Hill Camera Obscura, c1924

Whites Hill Camera Obscura, c1924

‘Seeing the City, The Delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives see Brisbane through the Camera Obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 1 June 1935 p13.

‘Seeing the City, The Delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives see Brisbane through the Camera Obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 1 June 1935 p13.

‘Children from the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club view the surroundings through the camera obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30

‘Children from the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club view the surroundings through the camera obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30

You’ll have to buy the Cloud Land catalogue to read about the history of Bob White, his camera obscura, and his telescopes — and their small but significant role in the psychogeography of Brisbane.  Some things still intrigue me. Why, for instance, in the Tele shots (which I think was the newspaper you read on the tram home from work) is the man operating the camera obscura only wearing a singlet, even though it is June, and possibly quite chilly. Is it some insolent semiotics directed to the well dressed southerners who look gingerly into the image? A year later, in July, the same man is dressed snugly and neatly for the visiting ramblers, who peer appreciatively into the bowl shaped image, which is duly blasted away by the flash of the Tele photographer’s Speed Graphic.

As a child I think I was dimly aware of the the long-ago existence of the hilltop machine. We lived not far from Whites Hill, but it was beyond the reach of our bikes. Although my father did occasionally drive us to the Whites Hill dump at the foot of the hill we never went up — but perhaps he mentioned the long-demolished camera obscura to me on the drive out, he was certainly the right age to have visited it as a kid. (Once, I remember, we  brought a load of broken-up concrete pathway to the Whites Hill dump, as we over-enthusiastically under-armed the chunks from the car boot my father accidentally whacked me on the shoulder with a flat piece, he was mortified, but after the initial shock, I found myself remarkably unharmed.)  The dump, chockers with rubbish culled from a thousand sixties backyards, has been smoothed over for playing fields, and is now barely a memory, less so, even, than the camera obscura.

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