Inside My Dark Room
By Julie ParkJanuary 9, 2024
My colleague said that the focus on the camera obscura in my argument worked to conceal my book’s “true” topic. According to him, this was the discourses on empiricist philosophy surrounding 18th-century literature. I suspect its fault lay also in departing from his preferred critical orientation and failing to cite him, among other colleagues, in the process. This was my second book, yet his feedback made me seem like a disobedient child. Clearly, I could no longer rely on him to support me in my professional endeavors unless I changed my book to more closely reflect what seemed to be his own way of thinking and writing, jettisoning my focus on the camera obscura. I didn’t want to.
In Latin, camera obscura means “dark room.” As the name suggests, the basic features of a camera obscura are easy enough to grasp: the visual device projects images of the external world onto a wall in a dark room via a ray of light coming through a hole on the opposite wall. Yet its fundamental mechanism can be explained in even simpler terms: in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle described how, during an eclipse, he caught sight of the way images of the sun appeared on the ground between the leaves of a tree. In 1767, Arthur Young, friend to the novelist Samuel Richardson, wrote of finding a camera obscura inside the opening of a hedge: “The next opening in the hedge (I should tell you, by the by, that these breaks and openings are all natural, none stifly artificial) gives you at one small view, all the picturesque beauties of a natural camera obscura.”
In the most rudimentary terms, then, the camera obscura is an enclosed space—whether that enclosure is created by leaves, the walls of a room, or the sides of a box. Such enclosures create darkness and the conditions by which light can travel through an aperture and carry images. Initially, these appear upside down and in reverse; through the use of a corrective lens or mirror, though, they may appear right side up. The effect created is thereby a wonder-filled one, for the images of the outside world that are projected into the dark room are in motion and in color, two frequently overlooked but pivotal features. Exterior and interior worlds combine to recreate surfaces and become a new inner space, a new realm of interiority.
Eventually, camera obscuras became the wooden handheld boxes considered precursors to photographic cameras. Long before that, they were actual rooms in houses “made dark by closing the shutters,” as John Hammond puts it in his 1981 book The Camera Obscura: A Chronicle. In 18th-century England especially, the device was a prevalent cultural feature. Individuals turned their own domestic rooms into camera obscuras by which they might privately watch physical spaces transform into imaginal worlds constituted by the prosaic scenes taking place directly outside their homes. In other words, the material experience of camera obscuras exercised far-reaching influence on the way interiority was experienced and understood to be experienced in 18th-century Britain.
That story had yet to be told. The more I learned about the camera obscura’s cultural history in the 18th century, the more I wanted to reveal what to me are its most compelling attributes: with their centuries-old mechanisms, camera obscuras free you to transform spaces into realms of the imagination that root you more deeply into both a physical and a mental space. By giving you direct and intimate access to inner spaces, camera obscuras render external worlds the user’s own dominion. In this way, the device helped me answer questions at the heart of my book: Why does spending time in certain spaces make us feel more connected to our thoughts and feelings? How did minds and spaces come to be linked, to such an extent that representing everyday physical settings in painting and literature became a critical maneuver in developing a realistic sense of inner life? “Spatial formalism” is the term I developed in my book for this approach to the inextricable material links between space and psyche.
During the time I was writing this book, I was in one of the most difficult struggles of my life. An unexpected loss rearranged everything I thought I was and forced me to redefine myself on my own terms. Disturbing events at my institution not so subtly tied to my race and gender made it clear that I did not belong there. I had no choice but to leave and face an unclear future. All I had left was the book I was researching and writing, with the material and institutional resources for completing it. Never had it been more clear that the material spaces we live in shape who we are on the inside. Suffice it to say that I did not want to displace, in my book, the importance of the camera obscura and these spaces—in all their physical dimensions—with an altogether different focus on philosophical discourse.
At the time, I was living in my own dark secluded rooms, where I spent as many hours of the day as I could working on my book while the Southern California sun shone brightly outside. Yet I found the spaces—my sunlight-deprived apartment in Pasadena, with the scraggly camellia shrub growing outside of it; my carrel in the dark, silent, wood-paneled Rothenberg Reading Room of the Huntington Library; the travertine-clad complex of the Getty Research Institute, which transforms into a honey-colored fortress during golden hour—that would allow me to access the visions I held in my mind and, in doing so, write my book.
During his retirement in the London suburb of Twickenham, 18th-century poet Alexander Pope famously turned the grotto of his rented villa’s landscape garden into a camera obscura. By shutting its doors and blocking out the light outside, the irritating and intrusive commercial activity on the Thames immediately outside Pope’s house disappeared, turning the grotto “from a luminous Room” into a camera obscura “on the Walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats are forming a moving Picture in their visible Radiations.” It was here that Pope sought his retirement, realizing in his grotto an even greater ambition and passion for aesthetic creation and craftsmanship than he found in his poetry. About the design of his grotto, he proclaimed towards the end of his life, “I should be more sorry to leave it unfinished than any other work.”
The camera obscura has not always had such a poetic or dreamlike function. From antiquity up through the recent “Great American Solar Eclipse” of 2017, these devices have served as convenient mechanisms for looking at eclipses without damaging one’s eyes. Camera obscuras provided artists with tools for rendering perspective in the Italian Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age, and it has long been maintained that the 18th-century Italian painter Canaletto used the device to produce his stunningly realistic views of urban topography. Thanks to the prevalent understanding in visual culture studies of the camera obscura as a tool for perceiving or rendering physical reality with almost scientific exactitude, the device has not traditionally been recognized as a space for the imagination, despite 18th-century England’s fascination with it as such.
To experience the camera obscura’s power in creating an embodied reality firsthand, I went to the beach. In Santa Monica, a beachside community art center was hosting a working camera obscura from around 1898. Arriving at the Camera Obscura Art Lab from Pasadena (where I was living at the time), I signed in with an attendant sitting behind a folding banquet table on the first floor and took a narrow staircase to a small room at the top. To operate the camera obscura, I shut the door to the already darkened room and started moving the captain’s wheel attached to a long pole, which, in turn, controlled the movements of a metal turret that functioned as a periscope. This channeled light into the room through the hole in the ceiling, bringing with it images of the external world. The round white tabletop screen directly underneath the hole in the ceiling and across from the wheel allowed the images to become more visible and focused, their colors more saturated.
As I watched projections of the Santa Monica beach outside pour onto the tabletop, I felt the excitement of seeing a picture that at first seemed still begin to move. The distant waves of the Pacific Ocean came slowly towards me, their white frothy edges rising higher and higher before finally falling to lap the sand and then, receding, repeated the cycle. Birds flying across the horizon inspired similar elation. Pivoting the wheel, I left the beach behind and headed towards traffic. Soon, the street outside appeared on the tabletop. I saw a mother standing next to her child on the sidewalk as they waited for their ride to show up. I also saw groups of tourists crossing the street one after another, creating a rippling pattern with their bare arms and legs bending in coordinated motion across the horizontal expanse of the tabletop screen. To my eyes, the strangers in the street, in their very act of walking to get from one place to another for the most prosaic of reasons, were performing the dance of life. This sense of real life transformed into an aesthetic performance was heightened by the removal of the scene’s ambient noises, as well as the somewhat blurry and deeply hued qualities of the projected image. My mind could fill in the silence with my own story of what was taking place.
The next turn of the wheel created the illusion that traffic was crossing in bands across the white disc of the tabletop screen, against the image of the Ocean View Hotel. Inside the small dark room that was otherwise very still, the unceasing motion of the cars made me slightly dizzy. They moved so far beyond the projection screen that they spilled directly onto the surfaces of the room—and, at that moment in time, in that particular room, the cars of Santa Monica were not driving down asphalt but the grain of wooden floorboards inside a dark room. The outside world was now inside with me, and the images of real life had been rendered into a world of my own imagination.
The whole experience helped suggest why 18th-century subjects were so fascinated with this particular kind of room and device. In a 1786 encyclopedia, I found a diagram and instructions for creating at home a room very similar in design and mechanism to the Santa Monica Camera Obscura, with the name and address of the London lens maker who could supply the requisite optical pieces for transforming a mundane architectural space into a receptacle for commingling fluctuations of light, shadow, color, movement—and one’s emotions. To be inside a camera obscura is to see the world around you with new eyes. It is to achieve an intimacy both with yourself and with the outside world, as the boundaries between that world and the mental and physical spaces of your perception blur. Vitally, the outside world remains an actively unfolding realm even as you process it through the device. You can study the world without the interventions or obstructions of polite social strictures; for a spell, it has become your own private space.
In what has since become a series of famous essays published in his serial The Spectator, 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison identified the camera obscura as a prime example of the “pleasures of the imagination.” Writing in 1712, Addison relates how a camera obscura enabled him to observe “the prettiest Landskip” he had ever seen, “drawn on the Walls of a dark Room.” On this wall, he saw the images of real life rendered as hyperrealistic yet magically aestheticized objects of the imagination—the same effect I saw, hundreds of years later, inside the Santa Monica Camera Obscura. Addison writes: “[T]here appeared the Green Shadows of Trees, waving to and fro with the Wind, and Herds of Deer among them in Miniature, leaping about upon the Wall.” To him, the camera obscura represented an effectively endless well of wonder; the idea of representing the details of everyday reality at all in aesthetic media—especially “high arts” such as poetry and literature—was relatively new, and the camera obscura provided the perfect vehicle for capturing the image of reality as a dream state, and dream states as an image of reality.
To understand firsthand the properties of the camera obscura is to understand also why certain spaces of private life specific to 18th-century culture—writing closets, grottos, women’s detachable pockets—were so crucial to developing a way of being I call “possessive interiority.” Carrying elements of your private world inside those physical spaces renders you intensely aware of how you see and experience the world deep within yourself. It is a world that no one can ever take away from you; it’s one that exists as much inside your head as inside the corresponding spaces in your environment. And because no one else can have the same experience in a given space but you, the stories that you make in collaboration with the camera obscura are your stories alone.
By this point, I had nothing left to lose. I was preparing to leave behind an institution and career path that had once felt innate to my sense of identity. And so, making the argument I wanted to about the camera obscura, even against the wishes of a senior colleague, seemed more important than anything else. I had unexpected guidance. An insightful new friend I had made at the Huntington Library during this time asked me after hearing my story, “What are you willing to double down on?” Advising that “now’s a good time to do it … you’re in such a rich moment,” he referred to lines from a Henry James short story, “The Middle Years”: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.”
I am glad that such words compelled me to double down on my passion and task: researching and writing about the camera obscura. Not just because I ended up writing a book that was more authentic to me and my sense of 18th-century England but also because the Santa Monica Camera Obscura Art Lab has since permanently shut down. A friend informed me of this after I moved away; she did not know for certain but speculated that the closure was (as many endings are nowadays) pandemic-related. In the back of my mind I had thought that, if I ever wanted to relive my experiences there, I could always return the next time I was in Los Angeles. It turned out, though, that I had only one opportunity to learn what the space had to teach me. Fortunately, I took it. This, too, was a lesson: about the ephemerality of every moment in life, in which the enchanting images that can seem solid and real are always fleeting projections. The spaces in which those images are experienced are often fleeting as well, whether you realize it or not at the time.
This period of crisis in my life that, at the time, I was never sure would end eventually did. I am grateful for the freedom of working in the dark—as well as for the more lasting lessons of being and seeing according to inner truths—that the camera obscura brought me during that transitional time. Fighting back against the colleague who wanted to dictate the content and meaning of my own book inadvertently brought me to writing the book I was meant to, in a way I could never have predicted—through the very device he wanted me to abandon, the camera obscura. In turn, writing the book taught me the true value of the camera obscura: when so many other areas of your life are in flux, with unknowable resolution, retreating into rooms and other settings whose spatial forms and qualities allow you to see more clearly the passages of your own thoughts and feelings is a method of regaining strength and clarity—a form of possessive interiority. Such settings can ground you at crucial moments and deliver new understandings of self-identity. Often, these acts of sight and reflection require what appears, at least initially, to be little more than a dark room, a room readily found in that uncertain but rich space between things.
Julie Park’s My Dark Room: Spaces of the Inner Self in Eighteenth-Century England is available from the University of Chicago Press.
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