Peep Show

The Ancient Camera Obscura Is Put To Good Use At The Center For Creative Photography.
By Margaret Regan

THE LAST TIME a solar eclipse darkened Tucson's summer skies, a local house builder noticed a curious phenomenon. The diminished sunlight still made its way through cracks in the unsealed roof of the house he was working on, but it cast something other than the usual sunbeams all over the rough floors. Instead, everywhere the eye could see, were tiny glimmering half-moon crescents. Half dark, half light, the slivers were projections of the moon making its way across the face of the sun.

The enchanted house builder was not the first person to notice this pinhole effect. He stands in very good company. Aristotle observed the same thing during a solar eclipse in the fourth century B.C. Aristotle was watching the partially covered sun flicker through a plane tree, and, like the builder, he noted the eclipse cast its own crescent image on the earth.

You can puzzle over this optical problem yourself at The Waving of Foliage and the Coming and Going of Ships: Live Projections by Richard Torchia, the wonderful new camera obscura show in the darkened galleries at the Center for Creative Photography. Philadelphia artist Torchia has, among other delights, re-created the eclipse trick in an installation work called "Aristotle's Problem." Torchia has contrived an artificial solar eclipse in which a halogen light and a moving disk simulate a new eclipse every six minutes. The light shines through a pinhole and travels through a leafy branch like Aristotle's, and tumbles to the floor to create crescents that slowly form and dissolve, again and again.

The work is an homage to the Aristotelian event that some scholars mark as the beginning of photographic history, coming though it did thousands of years before the first official printed photographic image in 1839. In a sense, Torchia's intriguing show spans the era from pre-photography--when cameras obscura were a tool for artists and astronomers alike, and the makings of parlor tricks and carnival sideshows--to what some, in a newly digital age, are already calling the era of post-photography.

Nowhere in this exhibit, the seventh in the Center's Encounter series on cutting-edge photography, do you find a single printed photograph. Torchia instead has transformed the pitch-black galleries into a series of giant cameras obscura, which project only ephemeral images--desert plants, swirling dust, water dripping, a clock moving--on the walls, the ceiling, the floor, a hanging screen. Some move, some stay still, depending on what the original object is doing. When a drop of water drips in Torchia's real-life setup called "Klepsydra," in the reflected picture, it shoots up toward the ceiling.

In heading into the future, Torchia has gone back to the past, using the oldest photographic device in the book. A camera obscura, literally "dark room," can be any dark, enclosed space that has a hole through which light can enter. Whatever is outside the dark space is projected inside, though the projected image is upside down and reversed left to right. (As a child, Torchia first noticed the image of a window in his attic projected through a keyhole in the attic door.) If you add lenses to the equation, you can focus the image more carefully, and if you add mirrors you can re-adjust the image so it appears right-side up again.

In the old days, landscape painters used portable cameras obscura to sketch in details; such luminaries as Leonardo and Vermeer are believed to have experimented with the devices. Torchia's show was partly inspired by a large 19th-century camera obscura that's still set up in Bristol, England, as a roadside attraction. (Its sign text gave Torchia's show its name.) To the wonderment of people who had never seen a movie, this contrivance surveyed the sailing of ships in the harbor, the comings and goings of pedestrians and carriages, the swaying of trees.

Similarly, Torchia uses the ancient device to help us see the life forms of the Sonoran Desert in a new way. He puts his selected objects into lighted cases and projects their images outward through lenses in the peepholes. Rendered far larger than life, and pictured upside down and backward, the humble desert objects get our attention as never before. With the help of a honeycomb of some 24 lenses, a flowering cactus, lighted up inside a dark box, is projected many times over onto three monumental walls, in all its purple and yellow and green glory. The bowl that catches the drops from the palo verde branch in "Klepsydra" is also rendered huge: It's an event of volcanic proportions when the drop reverberates in waves through the water. A reversed clock, projected onto the ceiling in huge dimensions, turns around clockwise, its second hand going the opposite direction. The clock relates to local astronomy, and in another nod to Arizona's stargazers, the swirling dust in "Limelight" floats through the darkness like a slowly twisting galaxy.

Torchia has endowed these ordinary actions with a mesmerizing beauty, and he's also utterly transformed the usual viewing experience. The gallery is so dark that students posted at the entrance advise visitors to sit on nearby benches for up to 10 minutes until their eyes adjust to the dim light. Curator Trudy Wilner Stack points out that as your eyes acclimate, the pictures on the walls slowly emerge, just as printed photographs do in the darkroom developing tray. The whole experience is like getting inside a camera, or even into the eye itself.

And it's only when you prepare to leave the gallery that you realize you've become part of the imagery. A telescope lens on the entry door captures the movements of people walking through the Center's library opposite, or heading into the gallery. Everyone who goes into the show becomes part of the fleeting, fascinating picture on the wall. You become, just for a moment, as mysterious, as evanescent, as the eclipse's glittering little crescents of light.

The Waving of Foliage and the Coming and Going of Ships: Live Projections by Richard Torchia continues through April 13 at the Center for Creative Photography on the UA campus. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 2, George V. Coyne, S. J., director of the Vatican Observatory and adjunct UA astronomy professor, will give a free talk on The Visual Arts and Astronomy: Time-Keeping and Galileo's Discoveries. For more information, call 621-7968. TW

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