Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura — Los Angeles Explorers Guild

Camera Obscura

In Santa Monica you can visit a still-functioning 123-year-old pinhole camera that displays live images from Santa Monica Beach.

Santa Monica’s Camera Obscura was first built in 1898 by then-mayor Robert F. Jones with the intention of attracting tourists to his city. He charged eager curiosity seekers 10 cents a viewing. For years it was a big draw along Santa Monica Beach. It was even loaned our for a time to the city of Los Angeles and placed in Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park).

Camera Obscura, Santa Monica Boardwalk around 1900. From the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The city of Santa Monica purchased Jones’s device in 1910 and moved it to what is now Palisade Park, very close to where it sits today. The camera’s current enclosure, which incorporates the original 1898 mechanism, was built in 1955.

Located at the south-eastern end of Palisades Park (not too far from the oft-photographed Santa Monica Pier Arch), the Camera Obscura can be found inside a striking mid-century modern building designed by architect Weldon J. Fulton (who also designed libraries, community centers, and Googie-style buildings throughout Los Angeles).

Camera Obscura — Los Angeles Explorers Guild
The mid-century modern building housing the Camera Obscura. You can just see the turret on the roof. Photo from the author’s collection.

When we visited a few years back, locating the Camera Obscura wasn’t as obvious as we thought it would be. After entering the building, we learned we were in the Santa Monica Senior Center. Upon asking where we could find the camera, we were directed to an unassuming set of steps off to the side of the room.

Hiking up these steps felt more like we were on our way to a maintenance closet than to see a historic photographic device, but when we reached the second floor, we saw a door that read “Camera Obscura” right ahead of us.

This must be the place. Photo from the author’s collection.

We opened the door and entered a small, dark room draped with black fabric. Coming in from the bright Santa Monica sun, it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then we saw an image of the surrounding area projected onto a large white disc in the center of the room.

Camera Obscura — Los Angeles Explorers Guild
Ocean Boulevard as seen via the Camera Obscura. Photo from the author’s collection.

The image the camera projects is not a static image. It’s more like watching a hazy movie where the action is completely silent. It was a little strange watching a scene of the noisy street outside in compete silence.

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How the Camera Obscura Works

Santa Monica’s Camera Obscura consists of a metal turret placed over a hole in the building’s roof. The turret has an opening on the side, and this lets outside light into dark room below. This light is projected onto an angled mirror through a convex lens which is in turn projected onto that white disc.

The room also contains a wheel that allows the viewer to rotate the turret and change the image projected onto the viewing disc. The camera can capture images from a full 360 degrees around the building, showing off the action along Ocean Avenue, the goings on in Palisades Park, and even the beach-goers frolicking in the sand at Santa Monica Beach across the cliffs.

Camera Obscura — Los Angeles Explorers Guild
Another projected image from the camera. Photo from the author’s collection.

Like any camera obscura, the quality of the picture is dependent upon sunlight. On a cloudy day, the projected image can be a little out of focus or dimmer than it is on a sunny day.

As a concept, this is ancient technology. Aristotle is credited with first describing the functionality of light projecting an image into a dark room through a narrow opening, and German astronomer Johanes Kepler gave this process the name camera obscura in 1600. In the Victoria era, before the advent of film and television, such cameras proved to be popular attractions.

The building housing the Camera Obscura is still a community center and is home to the appropriately named Camera Obscura Art Lab, a community arts practice space with its own artist-in-residency program.

Viewing hours for the Camera Obscura are typically 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM Monday through Friday and 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM on Saturday. It’s closed on Sundays. However, these hours may be different due to Covid-19 concerns.

Camera Obscura and Camera Obscura Art Lab

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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