One day when I was maybe nine years old, I was in the very back, what we called the “way back”, of the family station wagon. An empty box was next to me, so I put it over my head, as any bored nine year old boy might do. The day was bright, and the box had a small hole in one side, and so it was that I happened to create a pinhole camera (or camera obscura) by accident. It was one of the most magical discoveries of my life. Projected on the dark inside of that box was a blurry upside-down color image of the moving world outside. If you’ve never seen a pinhole camera in action, it really is amazing to behold, mostly because it is so utterly unexpected. All the more so when you’re a nine year old boy with no notion of why this should be.
If you want to see what it looks like, here’s the story of an artist who built a camera obscura on wheels.
You see this and you start to understand why the word “camera” comes from the Latin for “room”. To think that a big box with a hole in the side makes a passable real-time video monitor is so wonderfully strange. The basic principle of photography seems so simple when you start here.