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Camera Obscura Offers Warped Ocean View

Times Staff Writer

Moviemakers have long been drawn to the edge of Santa Monica to capture on film the picturesque pier, Palisades Park and the blue ribbon of the bay.

But Santa Monica offers its own offbeat angle on the beach scene. It’s called the camera obscura.

Stashed in an upper floor of the Senior Recreation Center just off Ocean Avenue, the 105-year-old optic device lets tourists observe the bustling beachfront outside from the seclusion of a pitch-black, closet-sized theater.

The relic is reminiscent of a class of novelties known as pinhole cameras that populated beachfronts and tourist destinations at the turn of the 20th century, prior to the arrival of modern movie theaters.

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The antiquated contraption was built and donated to the North Beach Bath House in 1899 by Robert F. Jones, who was related to U.S. Sen. John P. Jones.

In addition to founding Santa Monica, Sen. Jones was a 20-year member of Congress, a vigorous opponent of Chinese immigration to the United States, and rich from investing in Nevada silver and gold mines. He once led a mutiny aboard a vessel bound for the California gold fields because the captain refused to feed the passengers, according to the Santa Monica Historical Society.

Overshadowed by Sen. Jones’ high-profile career, little is known about the man who built Santa Monica’s camera obscura. About 1902, it was relocated up the bluff to Palisades Park because of harsh weather. In 1955, the Senior Recreation Center was finished, and the camera was moved inside.

Evidently, spying on unsuspecting passersby has grown cheaper over time. A photograph dated 1900 shows a wood-shingle shack on North Beach with the sign, “Camera Obscura, 10 cents.” Now, all that’s needed is a driver’s license, and entrance to the exhibit is free.

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The phrase “camara obscuratio” is Latin for dark room. The technology traces its history back at least 2,000 years before the invention of photographic cameras to Aristotle. The Greek thinker noticed how, when a tiny pinhole of light entered a dark cave, it projected an image from outside inverted and upside down onto the cave wall before him.

“It’s one of the optical laws,” said Steve Thomas, curator of collections at UC Riverside’s California Museum of Photography, which also has a camera obscura exhibit.

When light rays pass through a small hole, it’s almost like passing through a lens: The rays bounce off one another and the hole, and emerge in different orientations. When light enters a camera obscura through a pinhole or lens, it’s projected reversed and refracted onto the opposite-facing surface.

Camera obscura is a technique taught in UC Riverside’s introductory photography courses, Thomas said.

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Students are told to find an empty cereal box and place a piece of photographic paper flat in the bottom of the box. Poke a pin through the end of the box opposite the photographic paper and place a piece of tape over the pinhole. Take the camera outside, remove the tape, and allow it to take in light for an extended period of time. After a few hours, the image from outside will burn into the photographic paper inside the camera. Place the tape back over the hole, develop the paper, and the picture from outdoors will appear, reversed and upside-down.

The sight of upside-down people, animals and structures was obscure -- even scary -- to the camera obscura’s first spectators. Sixteenth-century Italian inventor Giovanni Battista della Porta reportedly sent his audiences screaming hysterically from the theater when he showed the images to them. Della Porta was later tried by the Inquisition for practicing magic.

But a recent foray to the Santa Monica version proved to be slightly less nightmarish, or damning. This camera obscura -- the only one in the Los Angeles area -- projects images without any distortion, owing to a mirror installed in a turret on the roof that acts as the camera’s eye.

The mirror reflects what the turret sees outside down through a convex lens that flips the scene outside onto a white, circular table in the middle of the room. Visitors can rotate the turret and the scene on the table by turning a crank on the wall that looks like a wooden ship’s wheel. However, part of the 360-degree view is blocked because trees have grown alongside the building.

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Anita Ybarra, 44, the main community services supervisor for the Senior Recreation Center, said reactions from tourists are mixed. “A lot of people go up and say, ‘Wow, that was really cool.’ Other people say, ‘Is that it?’ ”

During the summer months at the peak of the tourist season, the camera averages about 40 visitors a week, Ybarra said.

Only one group at a time can go up to see it, but the low volume of traffic keeps wait times to a minimum. “We’ve never had to limit the number of people that go up,” she said.

There has been talk recently by Santa Monica officials of moving the camera obscura to make more room in the senior center, but nothing is decided.

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Karen Ginsburg, assistant director of community and cultural services for the city, said rumors of moving the device are not true.

“We have no funding at this point in time for it,” she said. “I would think that it would be addressed in concert with any upgrades made to the Senior Recreation Center. Even though that’s something in the long term, we don’t have funding currently.”

City Councilman Mike Feinstein, liaison to Santa Monica’s landmarks commission, talks about preserving the camera as a piece of city history.

“The whole question of historic status in this city has been widely debated over the last few years,” he said. “From the early ‘90s on, the gentrification has threatened a lot of buildings and our character.”

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