America / ARTICLES

The Boston Globe: “Center turns room into giant camera”

The thick trunk of the old maple tree will appear to grow out of the sky, but its leaves will stay green, swaying when the wind blows, just like they do in real life.

An upside-down man on the bench will continue reading his newspaper, but may appear smaller than his actual size. Little girls will do cartwheels and throw Frisbees on the lawn, though the Frisbees and the cartwheels will move left to right, not the right to left of reality, and the girls may be slightly out of focus.

These are some of the images that could soon appear on the white wall in the Brookline Arts Center, where a 10- by 18-foot room is being transformed into a walk-through camera for an exhibit that opens Tuesday. The upside-down mirror image of Monmouth Park outside the building will be projected on the wall, creating a real-time video – in color, but without sound.

This is camera obscura, the earliest and simplest camera known to civilization. Camera obscura, which simply means “dark room” in Latin, is created when all the windows in a room are blacked out and the only light that is let in comes through a little hole opposite a white wall.

When light enters the room through the hole, it does not scatter but continues to travel in straight lines, creating an upside-down, mirror image on the wall. If the room were a camera, the white wall would be where the film is placed, and the hole would be the aperture.

“You’ll be able to see the image of what’s outside the wall. If someone walks by outside, you’ll see them walking upside down,” said Susan Navarre, Brookline Arts Center’s executive director. “It’s one of those things you learn about in science class, but it doesn’t seem real to you until you actually see it happen.”

The invention of the camera obscura is credited to an Iraqi Arab scientist who lived 1,000 years ago. For centuries, painters used the camera obscura as a tool to draw landscapes more accurately. Photography itself, though, wasn’t developed until the 19th century because people did not know how to chemically coat paper, film, or metal to capture an image that is projected on it, Navarre said.

Brookline Arts Center photography teacher Sarah Gaw, who is in charge of turning the room into a camera with big sheets of black plastic, said she will use it as a tool in her classes, to show children how the image changes with the size of the hole in the wall.

When the opening is smaller, the image will be sharper but dimmer, while a larger opening will create an image that is brighter but not quite as in focus, she said.

The center is also trying to raise money to buy photo film, large sheets of photo paper, and large darkroom equipment to capture images that are projected on the wall. While that’s in the works, Gaw plans to simply give her students paper and pastels and ask them to capture the projected images the old-fashioned way.

When it is built, Brookline’s exhibit will be the only walk-through camera that is open to the public in the Boston area, according to Gaw and Navarre.

The closest public camera obscura is on display at the Children’s Museum in Portland, Maine, where a more sophisticated optical device and a rotating mirror projects Portland’s skyline onto a round table, magnifying it 18 times, said the museum’s science coordinator, Suzanne Eder. The exhibit is popular with adults and children, according to museum spokeswoman Sarah Holman, but it does not work well on cloudy days.

Back in Brookline, although no sign will warn Monmouth Park visitors that their images will appear on the wall of a gallery next door, most people interviewed at the park last Tuesday afternoon said they don’t feel that this would be an invasion of their privacy.

“Sounds pretty cool; I’d like to see it myself,” said Brookline resident Steve Webler, 44, who was reading newspapers on the bench.

Marian Clouse, 67, who was watching her 4-year-old granddaughter run around on the playground, was also intrigued. “It sounds pretty far out,” she said. “I guess I’d go and see what it looked like.”

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