You don't need power or wifi to create these incredible images — just 'everyday magic'

A team of artists built camera obscuras all over Dawson City, and this show captures the wonder.

A team of artists built camera obscuras all over Dawson City, and this show captures the wonder

Holly Ward and Kevin Schmidt. Eye of the Beholder, 2015. (Courtesy of McMaster Museum of Art)

A gold nugget the size of a smart car? It's not something you see every day, even in Dawson City, Yukon, heart of the old-timey Klondike. But when one popped up in a field outside of town two summers ago, the only thing more uncanny than that sight was what visitors would have seen inside of it.

Eye of the Beholder, a work by Vancouver/Berlin-based artists Holly Ward and Kevin Schmidt, is a functioning camera obscura — one shaped like a hunk of gold (or fool's gold, more likely). It was just one curious sculpture that popped up around the Dawson area in June of 2015 as part of something called the Midnight Sun Camera Obscura Project, a festival that assembled 13 artists (plus four research assistants) in the Yukon outpost to produce installations, workshops, performances and more, all celebrating this lowest of lo-fi photographic tech.

It's everyday magic. There's something really beautiful about it, and really simple.- Dianne Bos, artist

A peek inside this minimalist Ferrero Rocher would have revealed a hazy vision of the world outside its gilded walls — gravel, sky and riverbank, projected in real time without power or wifi. Currently, though, the piece is chilling inside the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, part of an exhibition that documents the whimsy of this five-day festival while asking visitors to stop and consider how the world around them works. Or, to put a finer point on it, why science that's existed since Aristotle's day still seems a little like witchcraft.

Installation view of the Midnight Sun Camera Obscura Project, on now at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton. The touring exhibition has previously appeared in Kamloops and Lethbridge. (Courtesy of the McMaster Museum of Art)

How'd they do that?!

Camera obscura, translated to Latin, means "dark chamber," and they are, essentially, just that.  They can be made out of cardboard boxes or entire bedrooms — or DIY gold nuggets. The important thing is that they're completely dark, sealed off from sunlight, save for one tiny tear: the aperture.

When light travels through that tiny hole, it projects an image. The projection appears upside down and backwards, but a lens can help focus it, and adding a mirror will flip the image right side up.  And the only thing it really needs to function is natural light — something that's in abundance during high summer in the Arctic, which would explain why Dawson City was the ideal locale for a festival.

Donald Lawrence. George Black Camera Obscura Projection, 2015. (Courtesy of the McMaster Museum of Art)

People have had the know-how to make camera obscuras since antiquity, though the term itself wasn't invented until the 1600s, when Renaissance minds began tinkering with the technology, developing mechanisms and adding lenses to create new-and-improved versions. (There are theories that Dutch masters like Vermeer, for instance, used them as projection tools, to nail their paintings' super-realistic style.) By the 1800s, its principles were applied to the invention of the modern camera.

It's kind of the purest form of image making. It's just pure light!- Dianne Bos, artist

And to Diane Bos, a Calgary-based artist who was part of the Midnight Sun team, camera obscura is "kind of the purest form of image making. It's just pure light!" (Since the late '70s, she's used pinhole photography in her artwork, which works using the same camera obscura effect.)

"When people see [a camera obscura], everyone goes, 'It's magic!'" she says. "But it's everyday magic. There's something really beautiful about it, and really simple."

Even more magic

For the event in Dawson City, Bos created See the Stars, an installation that let viewers see the night sky in the middle of the day — a bit of fantasy given they get 21 hours of sunlight that time of year. Using a prospector's tent, she created a multi-aperture camera obscura, the lattice of pinholes subbing for an accurate map of the heavens. At the exact moment of summer solstice, the projections aligned with a map placed inside the tent, illuminating crystals and fool's gold and other sparkly hidden treasures that had been dropped on the site of various claims. "It was like Raiders of the Lost Ark," she says, laughing. 

Elsewhere around town, the project's mastermind Donald Lawrence — an artist and professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. — built a camera obscura on the George Black Ferry, which crosses the Yukon River all day. Mike Yuhasz invited citizens into a panel van (turned camera obscura), asking them to ignore everything they ever learned about stranger danger for a joyride/show. Lea Bucknell, inspired by the town's Wild West architecture, built a camera obscura in a replica false-front building. 

Josephine Mills, director and curator of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, got herself a ticket to Dawson when she heard about the festival. She's also the curator of the travelling exhibition that's based on the project, an idea that she says was in the back of her mind when she was there on the scene, and which came about in collaboration with the project's lead, Lawrence.

"The exhibition is the result of the experiments [the artists] were doing with the project," she says. Lawrence's project (funded by a SSHRC grant) allowed participants two years to develop the work that ultimately appeared at the show, and the exhibition now at the McMaster Museum of Art — its final stop — includes work that was produced during the festival (prints, drawings, video), plus one of the original camera obscuras and models that include replicas of Bos's and Lawrence's installations.

It's previously travelled to Kamloops and Lethbridge, and at each stop, a new piece was created. For this current edition, Bos has installed Star Shed, a steel shed (because Hamilton) that she's turned into a camera obscura. Like See the Stars in Dawson, it plots the alignment of the stars for May 23, 2018 — her birthday.

Dianne Bos installs Star Shed on the lawn outside the McMaster Museum of Art. (Courtesy of the McMaster Museum of Art)

What are you looking at?

Bos laughs when she remembers how people reacted to the camera obscuras set up in Dawson. "You'd hear the people inside going, 'WHO-O-OA!' It was like a funny peepshow, in a way."

Says Mills: "People who haven't experienced it before are just absolutely amazed. It just takes you back to the early days of cinema when people would run screaming when there was a train coming towards them in a film," she laughs. "But the really neat thing is you're seeing your cell phone-addicted current citizen have that reaction — to what is incredibly simple technology."

That fact gives the project an extra shot of relevance, in Bos's opinion. "I feel like no one thinks about what they're looking at anymore," she says, talking about this digital moment and the fact cameras are absolutely everywhere. (My phone's maybe five centimetres from my keyboard as I type.)

"As technology advances, I think people like to get back to the grassroots version of everything, whether it's with food or camping" — or in this case, photography. (Her work in pinhole photography, she says, only increased in popularity as digital cameras arrived on the market.)

The kaleidoscopic view from inside Dianne Bos's Star Shed. (Courtesy of McMaster Museum of Art)

Everyone uses a camera, and yet, she says, when most people go inside one of her camera obscuras: "It's funny how a lot of people don't know what they're looking at."

We use cameras every day, and are constantly seeing photographs, but a steel shed concealing a kaleidoscope of strange and misty projections — that, you can only do in Hamilton until August 18. And an experience that unusual should, in theory, prompt a few questions, the hell does it work?

Raising those sorts of questions is important to the show, says Mills. "I think that art can tap into that natural existing curiosity and can then build a bridge to where you're understanding complex and difficult ideas, but ideas that are really important to us — understanding our environment, understanding scientific information."

"[The exhibition] is tapping back into a sense of wonder and play, and also reconnecting that science isn't something that only specialists can do and think about."

The Midnight Sun Camera Obscura Project. Dianne Bos, Lea Bucknell, Ernie Kroeger, Kevin Schmidt, Holly Ward, Carsten Wirth, Andrew Wright. To Aug. 18 at the McMaster Museum of Art, Sherman Gallery, Hamilton.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.


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