Robyn Stacey's Dark Wonders of Camera Obscura

Robyn Stacey's Dark Wonders of Camera Obscura

Every so often Robyn Stacey traps the world in a darkened room and takes a photo of it.

Using camera obscura, the magical and mind-bending corralling of light the human eye uses to see, she creates an inverted real-time cinematic projection of the view outside on the walls inside.

Camera Obscura photographic artist Robyn Stacey

Camera Obscura photographic artist Robyn StaceyCredit:Steven Siewert

"One of the early names for the camera obscura was the magic mirror of life," she says. "And, in a sense, I see why they were called that.

"It's an experiential thing because every day is different, every day depends on the weather and on what is outside. I wait for the perfect moment and try to capture that."


Stacey, an award-winning artist who has been using camera obscura in her work since 2013, first went inside a camera obscura at a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in Florence.

"As a photographer I'd known about the technique for ages," she says. "But this felt fantastic and magical."

Stacey's first foray into using camera obscura was as artist-in-residence at a five-star Melbourne hotel where she photographed guest rooms, sometimes with people in them, layered with the postcard view outside.

To capture the people in such a darkened space she had to "paint them in" using light from a torch during the film's exposure.

Her latest camera obscura work, an exhibition titled Dark Wonder at Stills Gallery which opens on Saturday, features well-known artists' studios, homes and creative spaces overlaid with the view outside.

Dark Wonder, which opens on October 8, includes Brett and Wendy Whiteley's library, formerly Brett's studio, in Lavender Bay, Martin Sharp's house, Wirian, in Bellevue Hill, Rose Seidler House in Wahroonga, designed by Harry Seidler for his parents, and Yvonne and Arthur Boyd's library at Bundanon.

Wendy and Brett Whiteleyâ€s Library, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery.

Wendy and Brett Whiteleyâ€s Library, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery.Credit:Robyn Stacey

"The artist space has the persona of the artist because they not only worked in it, they've often lived in it, they've socialised in it.

"So it has a lot of resonance to it.

"When I took the image of the library at Wendy Whiteley's house I only discovered later that that was Brett's old studio, where he painted. And in that room I got Luna Park, I got the harbour, the bridge and Lavender Bay.

"Wendy was great. It was really difficult, a nightmare, to black out the space but I was just, 'It has to be this room'."

Also featured in the exhibition are less well-known spaces such as the Port of Brisbane railyard maintenance office, the Archerfield Aerodrome "Ready Room", a photographic studio at the National Art School and the Lighthouse Wharf Hotel in Port Adelaide.

Lighthouse Wharf Hotel, Port Adelaide, 2016.  Courtesy of Robyn Stacey and Stills Gallery

Lighthouse Wharf Hotel, Port Adelaide, 2016. Courtesy of Robyn Stacey and Stills GalleryCredit:Robyn Stacey

Camera obscura (Latin for "dark room") looks, at first, like a giant moving picture show, a projection of a beautifully saturated upside-down colour movie onto a wall.

Except the wall is not a cinema screen and there is no film. The moving image is the real-time inverted projection of the view outside and it is brought into the room via a small hole in the wall or blacked-out windows opposite.

Pinhole photography uses the effect via a light-proof box with a tiny aperture at one end and photographic paper at the other.

The brain rights the upside-down image our eyes receive and in a regular camera a mirror flips the view.

The Han Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti, or Mozi, is attributed with the first known mention of camera obscura in the fifth century, calling it a "locked treasure room". Greek philosopher Aristotle noted it in the fourth century.

Martin Sharp's Eternity, Wirrian, Bellevue Hill.

Martin Sharp's Eternity, Wirrian, Bellevue Hill.Credit:Robyn Stacey, courtesy Stills Gallery

Stacey, who uses a hole laser-cut into a metal plate and lenses to suit the different distances in each room, explains that not all spaces work for camera obscura.

"The room can't be too big because the light has to travel too far making the image too washed out at the end," she says.

"And they're either morning rooms or afternoon rooms depending on the sun. The shortest was 20 minutes when everything came together perfectly in the room. And I waited and caught it."

Dark Wonder is at Stills Gallery October 6 - November 5. Free public camera obscura events at the Courthouse Hotel, Taylor Square, Oct 8-9 & Oct 15, 16 and at Stills Gallery.

Camera Obscura How-to Guide


A sunny day.

Light-proof material, such as black plastic sheeting, to black-out the windows.

Black electrical or duct tape

Cutting knife to make a small hole in the light-proof material.

Lens (this is optional although it can make the image sharper. A screw-on torch lens is easy to use)


Cover windows completely

Cut a round hole the size of a ten cent piece in the black-out material.

Tape the lens on, if using.

Turn off the light.

Different size holes change the image. As in the aperture in a camera, the bigger the hole the more light gets in and the softer the image. The smaller the hole, the sharper the image.