Inside the small octagon that is Montana State University’s recently opened camera obscura installation, as a group gazed up at the live image projected onto a scrim above their heads, an inquisitive voice rose from the darkness.
“Someone asked if it was a webcam,” said Aaron Hyatt, a senior photography student from Hamilton who helped build the camera obscura as part of a class offered by the School of Architecture and the School of Film and Photography.
The simple answer is: not quite, said Hyatt and other students who built the art installation as part of the President’s Fine Art Series.
The 80-square-foot building and the optical conjuring of the camera obscura contain none of the technology of the digital age. The installation is not linked to the Internet. There is no wiring or electricity.
This fully analog technology predates the chemistry of photography by thousands of years. It is said that Aristotle developed and experimented with a camera obscura.
Now, the MSU community is discovering the camera obscura, which appeared between Gaines Hall and Romney Gym during the last half of March.
The camera obscura is a small, dark room with a periscope opening at the top and a mirror and lens that focuses the light of the outside world onto the scrim, which serves as both ceiling and canvas.
Like any camera, what it reveals depends on where it sits and what direction the lens is pointed, though its image is always rendered upside down and in reverse.
“It’s really satisfying to see how people are drawn to it,” said Katie Boyce, a senior architecture student from Juneau, Alaska. “We just really want people to appreciate it as much as we do.”
Having built what they believe is the first camera obscura in Montana, the students are eager to share their creation with the community.
After two weeks on campus, they moved the device to the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture, where it has been on hand for some of the “Celebrating Einstein” events. On Friday, it returned to campus, though professors and students envision sharing the project with other MSU campuses and Montana communities in the coming months and years.
The instructors for the course, Jonathan Long, adjunct professor of photography, and Bill Clinton, adjunct professor of architecture, said the key ingredient for the project has been its multidisciplinary approach. The 18 students enrolled in the class are majoring in either photography, architecture, art or engineering.
“There was a great cross pollination taking place within this diverse group of students,” Clinton said. “And they found that joy that happens in creating something and going through the design phase all the way to building it.”