Arts Visual Art

Obscure Inversions gets camera obscura

Vancouver Hotel, 2013 // Colin Smith, courtesy of Peter Robertson Gallery
Vancouver Hotel, 2013 // Colin Smith, courtesy of Peter Robertson Gallery

Each photograph invites the viewer into a dreamlike space. You see an outdoor scene projected into a hotel room, but the photographs all look surreal: the outdoor scene is upside down, folding over the walls and the furniture.

“I think I like that the most, watching somebody standing there and slowly tilting their head trying to view the other image on top,” says Colin Smith, the artist-photographer behind Obscure Inversions.

To look at Smith’s photographs, you would never guess how the Calgary-based artist-photographer creates them. The effect is not produced with a double exposure, and there is no digital manipulation involved. These are photographs taken of a process called camera obscura.

Camera obscura is a scientific phenomenon: “An image coming through a small hole creates an inverted image on the other end,” Smith explains. This image-making technology was first used in China in about 400 BCE, and the first cameras also used this effect.

For Obscure Inversions, Smith’s produced a series of camera obscuras inside hotel rooms across Western Canada, including one at the Hotel Macdonald here in Edmonton. The series looks at people’s interaction with the space around them, exploring how the world reclaims places and time.

To create the images, Smith covers the windows with black plastic to darken the entire room, then he cuts a small hole in the plastic and places a lens over it. The lens enhances the colour and crispness of the image, and the light coming through the small hole in the plastic casts an inverted projection of the scene outside into the room.

Smith brings his 4×5 Toyo film camera (the old-fashioned ones with the accordion-looking mid-section) inside the room to capture the image.  “It’s just like putting a camera inside a camera,” Smith says.

He then sits in the darkened room with an exposure time of two to six hours to, hopefully, get one picture. The limited light in the room and faintness of the camera obscura require this long exposure time. Smith estimates about a 25-percent success rate for his work because the photographs require optimal sunlight—even 20 minutes of clouds can ruin them.

In the digital age, when we can instantly snap pics on our phones, the concept of waiting an entire day to (maybe) capture one photograph is almost incomprehensible. But Smith describes camera obscura as a reawakening for both his photography and his perspective on life.

“During that whole process [of my earlier photography career], it was just on-the-go shooting hundreds of photographs a day,” he says. “Then I built a camera obscura just for fun, for my daughter, and I fell in love with the process. I decided to try and photograph them. And it became such a slow process; it takes me all day, and then weeks to plan and to get one image, if I’m lucky … It just kind of slowed my whole perception down, and how I view the world and how I view art. It became just such a meditative spiritual process and I just can’t do anything else. Everything just kind of slowed down for me. It made me fall in love with photography again.”

Until Sun, Mar 1
Works by Colin Smith
Art Gallery of Alberta


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