Before the art of photography, one way that folks got their visual entertainment was to stand in a dark room with a small hole on one side and marvel at a seemingly magical optical phenomenon that would occur. Through the pinhole, an image of the scene outside would be projected on the opposite wall of the room, inverted and reversed, like looking in a mirror upside-down. Camera obscura.
In the Victorian era, the heyday of the camera obscura, these room-sized structures were built as tourist attractions along North American and European seacoasts and other scenic areas. But the natural optical law behind it has been known to humans since antiquity. Aristotle observed the phenomenon in ancient Greece, as did ancient Chinese philosophers and Islamic scholars. In the 13th century, the pinhole camera was used by astronomers to observe the sun without hurting the eyes, and it was the German astronomer Johannes Kepler who coined the term camera obscura, Latin for “dark chamber.” The first written description of the camera obscura was found in one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks in 1502, along with hundreds of diagrams of the process. He and other Renaissance artists used the early image projection to study perspective and capture detail in their paintings.
As the technology advanced, the camera obscura’s popularity flourished. A lens was added to the hole to enable brighter and sharper images, and a mirror was used to reflect the inverted image so it appeared right-side up on a viewing platform. By the late 1800s, public cameras obscura were hot seaside attraction in Europe and the United States. They inevitably fell out of vogue, and today only a handful of these structures remain—as well as some newer cameras obscura built with a renewed interest in the antiquated process. Here are seven cameras obscura you can visit today to get a literal peek at the precursor to modern photography.