Of Strange Glasses: Camera Obscuras, Brisbane, and Robyn Stacey

(Catalogue essay for Cloud Land, Museum of Brisbane, 18 September 2015 — 3 April  2016)

Stick your hand in your pocket and hoik out your mobile phone. Flip it over and find the camera lens, it’ll be about the width of a grain of rice. Behind the lens is a sensor about the size of a baby’s fingernail, and between the lens and sensor is the only void in your phone that the manufacturer hasn’t crammed with electronics. It is a chamber, dark except for the tiny pyramid of image which the lens projects. That ‘chamber dark’ is a camera obscura. Now only a few millimetres high, the camera obscura was once the size of a room.  Of course your phone’s camera obscura is really a tiny photographic camera. When you tap the button the phone saves an image file from the stream of data produced by the sensor, while skeuomorphically playing you the comforting sound effect of an old-fashioned photographic shutter. But photographic cameras are only 176 years old, while camera obscuras are at least half a millennium old and may be even older.

Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci already understood quite well what was going on when he asserted that:

[E]very [light] ray passing through air of equal density travels in a straight line from its cause to the object or place where it strikes. The air is full of an infinity of straight and radiating lines intersected and interwoven with one another without one occupying the place of another. They represent to whatever object the true form of their cause. The body of the atmosphere is full of infinite radiating pyramids produced by the objects existing in it.[1]

But how could the ‘infinity of radiating pyramids’ produced by everything in every direction be organised into a coherent image? The answer was the camera obscura. Inside a darkened room a tiny pinhole could squeeze down the ‘infinity of straight and radiating lines’ to individual pencil beams, each one drawing only a small separate sample of the scene onto the opposite wall.

Opticians then discovered that if glass discs were ground into the shape of lentils (hence the word lens) and placed in enlarged pinholes, more light rays could be admitted into the dark chamber and bent by the different density of the glass to form an upside-down and back-to-front image. In 1589 Giambattista della Porta celebrated the wonder of seeing an image separate itself from its object for the first time, and the uncanny effect of the inversion of the image as it was projected into the room. In the seventeenth book of his magnum opus Natural Magic, titled ‘Of Strange Glasses’, he begins by describing a pinhole camera obscura, where the hole in the wall is the width of a little finger:

So shall you see all that is done without in the sun, and those that walk in the streets, like to Antipodes, and what is right will be left, and all things changed, and the farther [the images] are from the hole the greater they will appear. … If you put a small centicular crystal glass in the hole, you shall presently see all things clearer, the countenances of men walking, the colours, garments, and all things as if you stood hard by, you shall see them with so much pleasure, that those that see it can never enough admire it.[2]

della Porta went on to describe, 250 years before the invention of photography, how the combination of different types of lenses could increase the angle of view, to the point where the viewer inside the room would rejoice to see projected onto a piece of paper “an epitome of the whole world”. As well, he reported, concave mirrors could be used to re-invert the image to being upright, while redirecting it to another part of the room. It didn’t take della Porta long to realise the potential of this kind of optical set-up. He launched himself into an extravagant flight of fantasy where he imagined some ‘ingenious person’ staging elaborate scenes of “hunting, battles of enemies, and other delusions” on a spacious, sunlit plain outside the camera obscura. Inside the camera obscura, viewers, unaware of the elaborate tableaus being staged for their benefit outside, would only see the moving images of these scenes:

they cannot tell whether they be true or delusions: swords drawn will glitter in at the hole, that they will make people almost afraid. I have often showed this kind of spectacle to my friends, who much admired it, and took pleasure to see such deceit; and I could hardly by natural reasons, and reasons from the optics, remove them from their opinion, when I had [revealed] the secret’.[3]

The idea of two pyramids of light, from object to image, with their apexes meeting at a lens, had already become one of the dominant tropes of the Enlightenment but, for della Porta and others, fantasy and delusion were never far away from natural truth and its optical laws. This was especially strange because, as della Porta well knew, the camera obscura also demonstrated how the eye worked: the image is let into the eye by a pupil, just as it is let into the camera obscura by a lens; and the back of the eye receives the image, just as the rear wall does in a camera obscura.

In 1619 Christopher Scheiner performed an experiment where human perception and the camera obscura were collapsed one into the other. He suggested entering a darkened room and boring a hole in the wall, and into that hole placing the eye of a recently dead man, or if a recently dead man was unavailable, a dead ox. The dead eye must still be plump with all its aqueous and vitreous humors, and it must be inserted into the hole so that it is looking out from the dark into the light. Then he suggested taking a sharp knife and scraping away at the flesh behind the retina, then placing thin paper or an eggshell over the spot. There, in the dark of the room, if you peered closely enough, you would see a tiny image of the outside world projected onto the inside of the eyeball.

What this experiment couldn’t demonstrate, however, was how this upside and inverted image was combined with its neighbour from the other eye, rectified, and turned into human vision incorporated within the mind of the perceiver. The philosopher Rene Descartes featured Scheiner’s experiment in his Optics of 1637. He illustrated the camera obscura set-up schematically, but he rendered the optical structure of the eyeball with surgical detail. However, in the book’s illustration the retina is being observed by a classical bust hovering in the dark with robes and a patrician beard. Who is this man? Of course he is the experimenter in the camera obscura, but if this is also a model of how human vision works, the illustration is also of our own heads, and he is a homunculus of us, or our perception, or our knowledge, or our spirit, or our soul.

Illustration from 'Optics', Rene Descartes, 1637

Illustration from ‘Optics’, Rene Descartes, 1637

What worried philosophers and scientists such as Descartes, Johannes Kepler, John Locke and Isaac Newton was: what was the nature of that homunculus who took the various light beams which had irrupted into the eye and struck the retina, and eventually delivered them as ‘the world’ to the person? Was vision just inert vitreous optics screening pictures in front of the tribunal of perception in our brains, or was the human spirit, or soul, necessary as well, to tie us into the world we subjectively experience? Where was our faculty of perception located, just behind our eyes where the robed bust hovered, or somewhere else in our spirit? Where did we end and our world begin?

Whilst camera obscuras were performing duties as philosophical and scientific analogies, they were also being developed as machines. They were shrinking from the size of rooms to the size of scientific instruments. Diderot’s Encyclopedia from the mid18th century illustrates several handy desktop models in the section devoted to drawing. In these camera obscuras the world is miniaturised by the lens, and the artist looks attentively down at the world re-inverted by mirrors and projected onto a ground glass screen or drawing paper. Some camera obscuras were boxes of wood where a reflex mirror reflected the image up onto the underside of the artist’s drawing paper, which was protected from being washed out by ambient light with a hood. Others were like pyramidic tents into which the draftsman stuck his head and hand, where a periscope projected the image down onto paper. These camera obscuras removed their users from the flux of world, and laid out images for their rational eyes to observe and draw.

Plate 4, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 4, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 5, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 5, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

But even though the camera obscura was adopted as an instrument of rational sight in the 18th century, the problem of our vision’s simultaneous enmeshment in and removal from the world, which the camera obscura spectacularly instantiated, wouldn’t go away. In 1846 Karl Marx even took the camera obscura analogy and radically expanded it out to be a metaphor for ideology as well.

If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life processes.[4]

To Marx, we could not trust what we see in society because it had already been inverted by the ideology into which we had been born. We don’t recognise the inversion of ideology because we have been formed by it as historical subjects, just as we don’t recognise that our eyes invert our vision, because we are formed by it as cognitive subjects.

While Marx was using the camera obscura as a handy metaphor in his revolutionary thought, actual camera obscuras were being enjoyed by the proletariat. In Australia they were becoming popular attractions, rather than scientific instruments. From the 1850s camera obscuras, probably built into carts, were being advertised as feature attractions in Australian traveling fairs and exhibitions. Intrepid entrepreneurs began to build permanent camera obscuras, out of either stone or wood, at prominent vantage points in Adelaide, Sydney, Wollongong and Brisbane. The ones in Adelaide, Sydney and Wollongong didn’t last long, but the one in Brisbane lasted almost 50 years.

After Robert and Eliza White opened a kiosk and sly grog outlet on the top of the hill (now Whites Hill) in their property on the outskirts of Brisbane, they decided to invest 200 pounds in importing two telescopes and a camera obscura from England.[5] The camera obscura apparatus, “consisting of a lens which reflects panoramic views on a saucer shaped concrete bowl, with a plaster of paris surface”, was built into a tower above their octagonal dining room, and from 1891 the attraction garnered a steady trickle of visitors, many of whom were happy to take the half-hour walk from the Coorparoo tram terminus.[6]

Camera Obscura, Catalogue, William Y. McAllister, New York, c1890

Camera Obscura, Catalogue, William Y. McAllister, New York, c1890

Like many others around the world, the Whites Hill camera obscura provided visitors with an uncanny experience. As they looked into the pool of image they felt a bit like the homunculus in Descartes’ Optics, as if they were losing certainty as to where they were, what size they were, or where their body ended and the rest of the world began. Bob White twisted one handle to rotate the periscope around, sweeping Brisbane and Moreton Bay across the circular viewing table, while also pulling another handle to shift the angle of the reflex mirror, swinging the centre of view from foreground to distance. The Queenslander enthused:

Above is the tower, which is a camera obscura. Like an impressive old-necromancer the host operates the strings controlling the finder, and amazingly lovely scenes flit across the large horizontal, white disc placed in the centre of the room. Forest scenery is succeeded by water scapes, and the mouth of the Brisbane River appears. A slight tug at the cord and the bay slips into view. Then one picks up several islands. Another movement of the finder, and stately mountain peaks limn themselves on the white disc. In the foreground, just where one was going to rest his hand, trees quiver in a breeze which has been shut out from the tower. There are skies, too, where luminous clouds move across wonderful pools of blue. Another twist of the cord, and the finder discovers a mighty city with its suburbs rambling over countless hills. Above these are lovely cumulus clouds; and in the foreground a path strangely familiar. Then one remembers suddenly that he passed along it when climbing the ascent to the house. One feels glad that this the twentieth, not the seventeenth century, and that the grave old magician near by is not likely to be burned as a wizard![7]

Whites Hill, from 'The Pocket Brisbane', 1913

Whites Hill, from ‘The Pocket Brisbane’, 1913

View of the Observatory restaurant at Camp Hill Brisbane, 1924

View of the Observatory restaurant at Camp Hill Brisbane, 1924

In similar camera obscuras elsewhere in the world operators encouraged their lofty customers to adopt an almost god-like attitude to the scenes they witnessed. In the 150-year-old Edinburgh camera obscura visitors are still invited to hold slips of paper on the table, so the Lilliputian figures walking below appear to walk across the paper, unaware that they have been ‘captured’.

In 1928, following the death of Bob White, the Greater Brisbane Council resumed White’s Hill and sublet the kiosk and its camera obscura. But, even though the Lady Mayoress did her bit by holding tea parties there, the attraction did not thrive. In 1935 the delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives visited, but the new lessee didn’t even bother to put on a shirt for the southerners. As he swiveled the periscope and tilted the mirror the delegates looked on truculently.[8] A year later, and the same operator was slightly better dressed for the children of the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club, who seemed slightly more impressed as they leant into the bowl, immersing themselves in the coloured concave image which the Telegraph photographer’s flash was about to blast away.[9] But, within a few years, continually hampered by the difficulty of public transport access and poor publicity, the kiosk had been abandoned. By the Second World War the American army had commandeered the land for its geographical eminence as an observation post and training ground. After the War the Whites Hill camera obscura was left to the vandals.[10]

‘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.

In one sense these camera obscuras (Queensland hosted another one during the 1960s at Picnic Point in Toowoomba) are a subset of the panoramic mode of photography. Wickham Terrace was the most popular place in Brisbane from which cameras could click through 360 degrees, surveying the achievements of the city as it progressed with the straightening of streets, the building of bridges and the construction of buildings. But panoramas have just one temporal dimension, they are about measuring how far we have come, or how far we have yet to go. They have just one point of view, a stable one at the centre of the circle (usually, in Brisbane’s case, near the Windmill) acting like a scopic surveyor’s peg from which distances to landmarks in both history and geography can be measured. They have none of the hallucinatory, groundless shifts of the camera obscura attraction.

But that is the tradition that Robyn Stacey’s city photography belongs to: magical experiential pockets tucked into the seamless panoptic sweep, delusion within vision, memory within history, and the psychic within the civic. Brisbane, with “its suburbs rambling over countless hills” as The Queenslander put it, is particularly good at evading the panoptic view. The river and the hills fold in on themselves, but these folds have always been riven with shifting and unseen boundaries, divisions, segregations and curfews defined around race, class and gender. However, the biggest permanent division was between high and low. During the time of Robert White’s camera obscura, which was only 120 metres above sea level, any eminence amongst the hills, even of a few metres in altitude, was enough to cement social division: the rich built their villas along the ridges, straining to catch any breeze off the Bay, while the poor built their bungalows in the gullies, waiting to be flooded. During the Second World War, the time of greatest segregation, the American army observation post that replaced the Whites Hill camera obscura was only one node in a vast, South-East-Queensland-wide network of observation points, searchlight units and anti-aircraft gun-batteries that took over every hilltop, anxiously watching the sky.

After the War the rambling topography of Brisbane, with its hidden pockets of local intensity, was written over by progress. The ‘mighty city’, which The Queenslander had seen, must have been no more than a horizontal smudge in Bob White’s camera obscura, but it nonetheless began to sprout. In 1960 the Torbreck home unit tower claimed Highgate Hill for modernity; shortly after television towers, one for each of the four channels on the TV set in our living rooms, ranged themselves along the ridge of Mount Coot-tha; in the 1970s office buildings were erected in the CBD, dwarfing the previous eminence of the City Hall from which reputedly you could once have scanned from Stradbroke Island to Mount Tibrogargan; and in 1982 the Deen Brothers demolished Cloudland Ballroom to make way for crappy apartments.

This urban thicketing is recorded by some of Stacey’s images: the relentless grids of high-rise buildings completely wallpaper Ronald van Weezel’s room at the Hilton; and they spear to death the dreamy clouds and nostalgic photographic views of old Brisbane laid across the bed in room 1706 of Quay West; while all the young occupants of Willara House can look out to from her window is a fractured wall of brick and concrete. Sometimes, however, Stacey is able to carefully pick out her views between the towers and recall the underlying geographies of Brisbane. For instance, the image of the Story Bridge from All Hallows School (which was established in a doctor’s mansion built on another key site of geographical eminence, Duncan’s Hill at the top of Fortitude Valley, purchased by the Catholic Church in 1863) is like a giant picture postcard someone has put back upside down in the postcard rack. In a similarly spectacular inversion Stacey implodes the panoptic Benthamite architecture of another famous landmark, Boggo Road Gaol, to create an internal horizon of brick, fringed by the tops of the trees and blocks of flats of Dutton Park peeping over the wall. The City Botanic Gardens, which was originally a convict farm lying at the heart of Brisbane’s colonial layout, has been inverted and turned into a curtain of richly brocaded green. The curtain rises to reveal Maroochy Barambah, the song woman of the Turrbal people, the original owners of the land, who strikes a pose against a blue backdrop of sky. The Turrbal people unsuccessfully claimed Native Title over areas of Brisbane, but Maroochy’s defiant stand in a room of the Royal on the Park Hotel still attempts to topsy-turvy the hotel’s claim that it ‘provides a view like no other and offers guests a tranquil retreat in the heart of the Brisbane CBD’.

.Robyn Stacey has asked other transient occupants to perform as themselves in her room camera obscuras: Tyrone waits in the Children’s Court; while Jade in Room 1817 or Lesley in room 2212 of the Sofitel, or Mess in room 2418 of the Marriott, wait in their hotels. They remind me of the homunculus in Descartes’ Optics, they seem like they are sitting inside their own heads, immersed in a ‘through the looking glass’ dream of Brisbane. Or perhaps Stacey’s uncanny photography has temporarily released Brisbane from the thrall of its ‘historical life-processes’, as Marx would have put it, so it appears to these visitors as it really is. For instance Carlos, an occupant of a room at the Hotel Tower Mill, leans forward against a wall, with his eyes closed in intense inner communion. Projected onto the wall of the room once, and then reflected in a wardrobe mirror again, is the Windmill across the road, haloed in a nebula of jacaranda blossom. The Windmill is the oldest, and for many years was the highest, building in Brisbane, from which the Hotel Tower Mill takes its name and its architectural shape. The Windmill was the spot near which many of Brisbane’s proud photographic panoramas were taken; the building on top of which a time ball once dropped every day at 1pm, keeping Brisbane synchronised before clocks; and the building from which test radio and television transmissions were first made in the 1920s. But folded into this panoramic history darker functions and submerged lacunae lurk. Built on a ridge to catch the breeze in the late 1820s the sails of the Windmill never worked properly, perhaps they were put on the wrong way. So convicts were put to work until they dropped at a treadmill, grinding their grain and receiving their punishment simultaneously. Reputedly, the sails did become eventually useful as an improvised gibbet for two Aboriginal men, wrongly accused of murder who, in 1841, were unceremoniously pushed off the balcony of the Windmill, amid the howls of the other Aboriginal people of Brisbane, to dangle in a public execution. Now quaintly down at heel, the Hotel Tower Mill, in which Carlos dreams, was once seriously posh. It was the accommodation chosen for the all-white Springbok Rugby Union team from apartheid South Africa when they were invited to Brisbane in 1971. Police violently pushed the anti-apartheid protestors, who had gathered next to the Windmill across the road from the motel, down the steep slope of Wickham Park, bashing them as they tried to escape. Does the camera obscura re-project these distant memories, which the Windmill has attracted to itself like an historical lightening rod, into Carlos’s head?

Carlos isn’t saying. After taking part in Stacey’s experiment he’s checked out and gone back to where he came from. But as we look at her images of the outside in and the upside down, we too are invited to observe how a whole big, brash city may magically find itself silently floating upside down inside a single room; and how the past may still be felt, delicately tucked up into the present.

Another, more elemental, vision underpinned the laws of optics before they were rectified, framed and interpreted by photographic cameras and cultural conventions. Stacey shows us that, even in these days of the camera phone, da Vinci’s mind blowing revelation of infinite radiating pyramids filling the atmosphere is still capable of shaking us out of our habits and allowing us to experience the city we have built for ourselves in fresh and uncanny ways.

[1] Leonardo Da Vinci, Notebooks, Oxford University Press, 2008, p115

[2] Giambattista della Porta, ‘Of Strange Glasses’, Natural Magic (English translation), Thomas Young, 1658, pp363-364

[3] ibid, pp364-365

[4] Karl Marx, A Critique of The German Ideology, 1846, np

[5] ‘Passing of a Pioneer, Mr John White, of White’s Hill, Glimpses of early Brisbane, The Telegraph, 25 February 1927, p9)

[6] ‘Excursionist, Trips Around Brisbane, The Australasian, 20 February 1892, p44; The Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1929 p14.

[7] ‘Illustrations, Sixty Years Married, The Whites of White’s Hill’, The Queenslander, 24 January 1925, p40

[8] The Telegraph, 1 June 1935, p13

[9] The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30

[10] Judy Rechner, Where Have All The Creeks Gone: Camp Hill Heritage Drive Tour, Brisbane East Branch, National Trust of Queensland, 2001.

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