*New* Was there a camera obscura in an earlier Cliff House? Check out the page "Camera" on the fascinating site "Cliff House Project" after you have read this page. It will open in a new window so that you can return to this page.

Giant Camera, San Francisco, California
June 7, 2008 *Page Updated 6/2008*

We have visited the Giant Camera behind Cliff House in San Francisco four times. It overlooks Seal Rock on Point Lobos. The small building is decorated to look like a giant 35mm camera with its lens pointing to the sky. It was built in 1948-49 as part of the Playland at the Beach amusement area. The designer was Floyd Jennings who also designed two other camera obscuras, now lost, at The Garden of the Gods and Lookout Mountain.

After Playland closed in 1972 the camera obscura was in danger of being destroyed but was saved by a public campaign. At the time there were a number of articles in History of Photography publications with quotes and letters from both the "Save this bit of history" and "What kind of fool would go into a dark room to look at the projection of something they can see for real outside?" attitudes. The last statement is one we still hear today when we talk about the camera obscura.

When Cliff House was renovated in 1999 the Giant Camera was again scheduled to close. There was again an outcry of support and for a second time it was proposed for status as an historic place. On May 23, 2001 the Giant Camera was added to the National Register of Historic Places and saved from destruction.

We arrived at Cliff House before the camera obscura was open so had wonderful lunch in the Bistro restaurant. We were delighted to be given a table overlooking the camera obscura. The picture above was taken through the window. It shows the turret with the door covering the lens open.

In the image below Beverly and our friends, Louise and Dale, look at the image on the table. This is a composite made with a flash to show the detail of the table combined with a non-flash exposure to show the projected view. The original table is dished, as was common in 19th and early 20th century camera obscuras. This gives a more even focus across the entire surface.

The lens pans across a very wonderful expanse of beach and rocky coastline, including a large rock called "seal rock". At certain times of the year it was once covered with a colony of seals. We were told that the seals have not returned since the last major earthquake. The day we visited it was covered with brown pelicans.

We were delighted to find the image on the table sharp and bright. The mirror has been restored and the rotation of the lens now makes four historical stops during a six minute, 360° rotation as did the original design.

The renovation to Cliff House since our visit in 1998 is impressive. The selection and quality of the food in the Bistro restaurant is better than we remember from our earlier visits.

We thank Robert, the operator of the Giant Camera, shown above, for making this wonderful experience possible.

Image of the Giant Camera from Our Collection


Below is a red felt souvenir pennant that shows a bright yellow Cliff House and a yellow camera obscura beside it. We have another with in blue felt with the same graphics. On the right below is a detail of the blue banner showing the camera obscura in the terrace beside the restaurant. Was Cliff House ever yellow?

When we began to look for objects related to the Giant Camera to add to our collection we were delighted to find that a wide variety of items were available. We have postcards, an illustrated menu, two graphics china plates, a set of salt and pepper shakers, and two souvenir pennants of the Cliff House with the Giant Camera beside it. On the right is an early 1950s oversize postcard that shows the Cliff House with the camera obscura tucked into the side terrace. Below that is an enlarged scan that shows the lens turret and the words "CAMERA OBSCURA" painted on the side.

We were pleased to find one multi colored and one blue plate that featured the area.

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
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
Other Lost US Camera Obscuras
No, it's not a camera obscura

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 6/2008