By Dr. Drew Burns
Allegory of Camera Obscura
You’re Plato. You tell anyone who will stand around and listen about this cave and how we’re all
stupid because, “c’mon, you’re in a cave.” Then, after a brief but pithy silence, someone
responds, “so, what’s a cave?” Do you explain that it is a breathtaking anomaly, a cavernous
entrance into a vast unknown, deep into the Earth, deeper than our imaginations? Do you,
instead, cordon off the conceptual potentiality of a cave to the deceptive ontological
amphitheater of your narrative?
And now, allow me to draw a comparison to illustrate the effect of illumination (or the lack
thereof) upon our nature.
The camera, an extension of the eye, functions as a window into the meaning-making of its
invention. Its components comprise the metaphorical equivalence of our own production of a
cavernous shadow puppet theatre.
A simple box, collecting darkness until a shutter abruptly asserts an image. The box is the
potential. It remains dormant.
In an instant, light attacks the darkness. Omniluminescent potential directed through lens, frame,
and shutter. The contents of the lens refract the light as it creates images on the recording
surface, forcing the omni-directional light to collimate on a recording surface. The frame centers
the focus. Shutter defines the period, and thus the power, of the illumination. The unity of frame,
focus, time, light, and the superficial imposition of order is the image.
The recorded image, with its artificial orderliness, becomes what we know to be reality.
Prior to the rendering of the image, the recording surface is first exposed to light contrived into
uniformity, but then the recording medium must also be developed. The image, processed
through internal admixtures, yields a variable union between the directing focus of collimation
and the interpretive capacity of the actinic process; developer, stop bath, and fixer. Within the
image, which itself comprises the context for subsequent actinic processes, existing internalized
images define the parameters that limn or dim. A quick bath in ascetic acid to prevent
overexposure, then the fixer prevents further alteration, rendering the image inexorable.
Lenses, Mirrors, and Gobos
To extend the metaphor past its vanishing point, and to further the analogy of reality to
aberration and imagistic clarity to ideological myopia, consider the role of perceptual bias as an
amalgamation of single lenses of various convexity and concavity, mirrors to diopterate, and
Individual lenses shape perceptual foci. Occasionally, a singular lens refracts light to produce the
desired view. More common; a collection of lenses compound to shape the image and direct the
observer to an, at times inverted, at times virtual representation. Likewise, mirrors reflect an
image towards the observer, often the observer is the object represented by the inverse image.
Convexity converges at the focal point (f). Concavity diverges outward, so that when the
observer views an object, an apocryphal image appears to originate from f.
Mirrors renders the image virtual. Whether convergent or divergent; the mirror reflects the
observer, the reflection is simulated.
It should be pointed out, that with lenses there are multiple focal points – one on the side of the
object, and one on the side of the observer. The image of the object, whether actual or virtual
will appear at the point of convergence. Three rays intersect – each connecting the image to a
focal point: one on the object side, one on the observer side, and a third at the center of the lens.
That is rays of interconnection, of subject and object, are reformulated – whether its magnified or
diminished, virtualized, or actualized.
While we’re at it, keep in mind that the image may appear to be in front of or behind the lens
depending on the relationship between the lens’ focal length on either side. If the object appears
at the position of focus for the lens, the image becomes intransitivized. Similarly, a gobo
interrupts the objects recording prior to its refraction; some fully detransitivizing the image of the
object, while others partially obstruct the emulsion of object and observer.
Of course, it becomes more complicated with multiple lenses between object and observer. Then
there’s the multiple foci, multiple objects, sometimes each being processed through a different
apparatus and through different lenses, several mirrors reflect images of the observer back at
multiple angles. These elements combine to create an amalgamated image, comprising of lenses
and mirrors, which is absorbed by the subsequently conglomerated observer. The observer, the
recording surface, the palimpsest, the mystic writing pad, Nude Descending a Staircase.
How do I become a camera obscura?
Wall yourself in darkness.
Make sure no light can sneak through the cracks, unintentionally ruining the effect.
Create an opening, an aperture. Not much, just enough to render an inverted projection.
Now the world is imprinted upon your interior, the sky at your feet, and Earth looming overhead.
While camera lucida relies on superimposition to produce an image external to the observer, and
a Claude mirror captures the external world in darkness, cameras obscurae floods the recording
surface. Likewise, while cameras lucidae is susceptible to parallax error, cameras obscurae
necessarily follow the ray pattern of a convex lens.
Wait, what? What’s the allegory? Right, well … okay …
You are the camera. You are in the camera. You operate the camera. You forget you are looking
at images, distortions, displacements, inversions, omissions, and projections of lenses, gobos,
and mirrors. You neglect the object that has been rendered invisible by refraction.
You are Plato. You inhabit many caves. The allegorical cave that you attend to is not your own.
You neglect the crypts, caverns, catacombs, and chambers you frequent: your own personal
shadow play is on display.
How do you try to convince yourself that you are in a cave, several in fact, and that the real
world is not comprised of the images on the wall? How do you inform yourself that the inverted
reflections, distortions, and shadows that you believed to be you were little more than so much
backlit cutouts, obstructions, prismatic refractions, shadows: phantoms?
You escape the cave. Your eyes adjust to the light. You check things, then you return to
enlighten your lowly, sepulchral cohorts. They reject your newfound insight and take the piss at
your expense. Finally, either you shut up about the beautiful infinity of sun-kissed terra esterna
or choose to fuck right off to your own detached grotto. You look around, find a new cadre of
enlightened ones only to discover they reside in their own several cerebral sepulchers. Could this
be it? Caves, all the way down? You refract your self from yourself prismatically to find your
own occlusions, deflections, and diffractions.
Collimated ruins domino
The Platonic cave, Walgensten’s Magic Lantern, or a Hasselblad 1600F; knowing the apparatus
is necessary for recognizing camera obscura. It is not, however, sufficient. As Plato’s allegory
suggests, it helps to know you’re in a cave. However, the cave allegory finds its limit in the
chimeric perception of the external world. Taking the various media into account alongside the
systemic function of each medium – its operations, mechanisms, axioms, and established
practices – provides an adequate means of understanding – first as metaphor, then as metonym –
for the machinery involved in the construction, maintenance, and demolition of the image of the
external world, and the imago of the self.
Monochromatic, dichromatic, CMYK, RGB, or HEX – the image is ideological, axiomatic,
ontological, epistemic, and deontic. The operation of the apparatus constantly constructing the
image, superimposing upon preceding image a palimpsest of obstructions, virtualizations, and
transpositions in a constellation of sensual perceptions simulating the world like so many
shadowy figures dancing on the wall of a cave.