“You have to wait for your eyes to adjust,” says artist Belinda Wiltshire as she flicks off the lights at Tinning Street gallery. At first, there’s just a shadow dancing across the wall, coming from the golf-ball sized hole in the blacked-out windows. But eventually a projection of the outside world comes into focus, albeit an upside-down one. Cars and pedestrians pass.
So what is a camera obscura? It’s a technique that’s been used to reflect real life in images for millennia, and it’s the basis of modern photography. Painters have used them for centuries to capture reality into something flatter and easier to transfer to canvas. Vermeer might have used one, though it’s disputed. In reality, it's simply a projector that uses natural light. But to modern eyes used to living through a screen, it has the hallmarks of sorcery.
“It’s going to work best in the afternoon,” says Wiltshire. “And it works best if you spend a bit of time with it.” You need to let your eyes acclimatise and your perspective reset.
This is Wiltshire’s pet project. As the director and curator of Tinning Street, she’s long wanted to construct a real camera obscura. “I have an interest in photography, and lo-fi photography in particular,” says Wiltshire, “so I’ve always been aware of it.”
Wiltshire has a reputation as a painter, but her work is informed by photography. Last year, her portraiture exhibition We Are Stardust saw her photograph her subjects, split the photograph into the four basic colour signals, paint each colour onto a translucent surface, and finally layer them back into a single image. The camera obscura, like that work, is about stripping photography back to its component parts—a subject, and light—and rebuilding it.
Wiltshire sends me outside to stand dead still in the middle of the laneway, bewildering passers-by, as she takes a long-exposure shot of the gallery wall. The result is above: it’s a little blurry, a little ghost-like, and upside-down—but it’s reality.