National Geographic : 2011 May
• and told his students to watch. Almost instantly the back wall came alive like a movie screen, its surface covered with a fuzzy image of people and cars moving along Huntington Avenue outside. en the double take: e image was upside down, sky on oor, ground on ceiling, the laws of gravity seemingly gone haywire. Morell had turned his classroom into a cam- era obscura, a dark chamber, the Latin name for perhaps the earliest known imaging device and the ancestor of the photographic camera. Explaining the optical principle behind the device is probably the most complicated thing about it. A camera obscura receives images just like the human eye---through a small opening and upside down. Light from outside enters the hole at an angle, the rays re ected from tops of objects, like trees, coursing downward, and those from the lower plane, say owers, traveling upward, the rays crossing inside the dark space and form- ing an inverted image. It seems like a miracle, or a hustler's trick, but it's high school physics. e brain automatically rights the eye's image; in a regular camera a mirror ips the image. A portable version of the camera obscura---the chamber was now a box, the hole was tted with a lens--- rst became popular in the 17th century and was adapted by painters like Johannes Ver- meer and Canaletto as a drawing aid. Scientists used it to observe solar eclipses, just as children do today with pinhole cameras made from shoe boxes. To capture a projected image, innovators in the early 1800s began inserting chemically treated paper or metal plates at the back of the boxy cam- era obscura, and the art of photography was born. For Morell, a professor of photography, that day in the classroom was a revelation. "When I saw how these savvy, techie students were charmed and disarmed by the image on the wall, I knew this was something very potent." His rst project, conceived as a teaching aid, was to photograph the process itself. e result Something strange and wonderful happens when light enters a dark space through a tiny opening. Aristotle described the phenomenon back in the fourth century . . Leonardo in Renaissance Italy sketched the process. In Coney Island and other 19th-century seaside resorts, tourists lined up to see the magical results. Shi to a Boston classroom, the year 1988. Cuban-born Abelardo Morell, teaching an introductory photography course at an art college, was curious to step back in time. On a sunny day, he covered the classroom windows with black plastic, making the space as dark as a cave, cut a dime-size hole in the material, PHOTOGRAPHS BY ABELARDO MORELL Works of Abelardo Morell, a former professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, hang in museums worldwide. Tom O'Neill is a sta writer.