No, that is NOT a camera obscura!

We spend a great deal of time looking for examples and information on camera obscuras. From time to time we see objects or buildings identified as camera obscuras that we know, or suspect, are not. We have even purchased images described as camera obscura related that, after investigation, appear to be other kinds of objects/buildings. This page will discuss some examples that are most often misidentified as camera obscuras.

-No, it's not a Camera Obscura, it's a Peepshow.

The most commonly misidentified object is the peepshow or viewbox. Many of them look very much like a box camera obscura and to further complicate the matter there are some boxes that can be either one depending on the way they are configured. Let us first deal with the differences in a simple camera obscura and peepshow box. The purpose of the camera obscura is to project the entire outside world into a dark "box" which can be small enough to hold in your hand or as big as a building. The purpose of the peepshow box is to contain a small world inside it and let you peep in from the outside to see it. It is a box version of the sugar Easter egg from out childhood that contained small pictures and sugar objects like flowers with a hole at one end to view the wonderful little world inside. In a way the camera obscura works from the outside in and the peepshow from the inside out.

Our site "A Collection of Collections" which features a number of our collections, includes several pages on our peepshows.

On the left is an illustration from a 19th century children's book showing a peepshow or raree show (probably derived from the term "rare show") with children lining up to peer into the openings. Because they are boxes with a lens or opening they are often mislabeled as camera obscuras. The boxes contained one or more colored pictures which were often pierced and made transparent in areas so that they changed as the light entering the box was manipulated by opening and closing doors. Some examples of this effect can be seen on a page of our peepshow views.

One of our most treasured possessions is the peepshow shown on the right. This French Polyrama Panoptique relates to the idea of Daguerre's Diorama theatre. When doors are opened and closed on the top and back the pictures change from day to night. Daguerre's use of the camera obscura to make the large paintings for his Diorama buildings let to his development of a practical photographic process.

On the left is an illustration from The Gentleman's Magazine, April 1753. It describes the apparatus shown as a combination view box and camera obscura. When a picture is placed in the AB position it can be viewed through the lens but when the picture is removed the lens will project an image of the outside into the back of the box.

We have also seen examples of more elaborate 18th century instruments that can be converted from peepshows to camera obscuras.

-No, it's not a Camera Obscura, it's a Camera Lucida.

The engraving above is an illustration cut from a 19th century text. It shows versions of the device in use.

On the right is an early 19th century brass camera lucida and its leather case that we bought in England.

When the devise is in the correct position and the user peers through the eye piece it appears that the drawing paper and the scene facing the prism are merged. If the user is careful not to shift viewpoint it is possible to trace the image on the paper. The slightest movement spoils the alignment and the drawing is distorted.

It is not uncommon to find the device on the left, a camera lucida, misnamed as a camera obscura. We have also seen images of a camera obscura called a camera lucida. This is ironic because the name is Latin for "light room" which would suggest that it is the opposite of a "dark room" or camera obscura. The confusion appears to arise from the name and the fact that it is also a drawing aid.

The camera lucida was introduced by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807. In spite of the name it is not a room/chamber/box at all but a prism device that enables the user to see the object and the drawing paper superimposed. Used in several different forms since the early 19th century to aid drawing by artists and users of microscopes, it has "suffered" a revival of interest through the books and articles of the contemporary artist, David Hockney. He speculates that many of the past masters used this device and other optical aids to create their art. This has led to an explosion in the cost of vintage camera lucidas.

William Henry Fox Talbot was moved to invent photography on paper when he found that he could not make acceptable drawings with the camera lucida.

Another version uses a pair of mirrors instead of a prism to allow drawings to be made. This type, called a Graphic Mirror, was invented by Alexander Alexander in 1830. On the right are two 20th century examples of of this version of the camera lucida. The Grapho-Scope on the left is from the 1920s or 30s and could be used to copy cartoons that were supplied with the toy. A cartoon policeman can be seen on the clip at the back of the device and a drawing made by the original owner can be seen on the pad. The version on the right dates from the 1970s or 80s.

Modern versions of both the prism and mirror camera lucidas are being manufactured and sold today.

-No, it's not a Camera Obscura, it's just a small building.

We actively seek photographs of camera obscuras at the seaside, in parks, and and other scenic locations. In the 19th and early 20th century they were very common in any place where the view was interesting and people gathered. Sometimes there are references to their location where we have never found them pictured or there are photographs or drawings in places where we have not found any written reference. We actively collect artifacts and references in an attempt to put together as much information as we can.

Any small building in a photograph or drawings causes us to look more closely. We have found camera obscuras that are not identified as such, some that are clearly not, but others where it is difficult to tell.

On the right is an example of a stereo card we bought on speculation. It was described as a card with a "camera obscura?" in New York's Central Park. As can be seen in the close up below right it does look very much like a camera obscura. It looks different from the stereo card in our collection that shows a camera obscura on a raised platform in the park but is very like a drawing we have on a trade card. See our page on Lost US Park Camera Obscuras on this site.

After buying the card we found a stereo of the lake from a different viewpoint that shows a small building with windows. We will continue our research but now think it might be a ticket office.

Magic Mirror of Life Home Page and Site Map

What is a camera obscura?

Why we created this site

Frequently Asked Questions about the Camera Obscura (please check this page before sending email questions)

Links and a Bibliography about the camera obscura

Map and illustrated diary of
our visits to
US camera obscuras

Map and illustrated diary of
our 1996 trip to
Great Britain camera obscuras

Images of camera obscuras from our collection.

Some Images from our collection
The Camera Obscura at War
Advertising flyer for a Camera Obscura
Trade Cards with Camera Obscuras
Lost UK Seaside Camera Obscuras
Other Lost UK Camera Obscuras
Lost US Seaside Camera Obscura
Lost US Park Camera Obscuras
Melville Garden Camera Obscura
Other Lost US Camera Obscuras
Lost European Camera Obscuras
No, it's not a camera obscura
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Portable and box camera obscuras from our collection.
Wooden Camera Obscuras
Metal Camera Obscuras
Camera Obscuras with the Lens at the Top
Cardboard Camera Obscuras
A French Artist's Camera with supplies
Vermeer's Camera, a 1934 teaching camera
Camera Obscura Publications

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Modified 2/2005