While on a recent trip to Nashville, TN, I was able to have a fantastic experience: I went inside a giant pinhole camera! At Vanderbilt University’s Dyer Observatory south of the city, at the end of the road on top of a hill, the Dyer Observatory has been around since 1953, and has been used by generations of Vanderbilt students and faculty to teach and observe the night sky. The camera obscura that I was able to walk into is a much more recent addition in the form of a limestone sculpture called the Star Chamber, designed and built by noted English artist Chris Drury in 2006. Drury calls himself a ‘land artist’ and among other installations, has created over a dozen of these ‘cloud chambers’ around the world, always out of local materials.
Reminiscent of something you might find near a British stone circle, the sculpture spirals up out of the ground like a buried limestone beehive, nothing about its outward appearance revealing the magic that’s available inside.
There’s a low wooden door tucked into the far side of the stone spiral, taking you down and into a small whitewashed room. The walls and floor merge with each other in gentle curves and up overhead is a small hole, about an inch across in diameter. Close the door and you’re immediately plunged into total, complete darkness.
It took my eyes quite a bit of time to adjust, but eventually I started to see the forms of bare winter trees projected on the whitewashed walls and floor. Like any camera, this camera obscura inverts the image that it’s projecting as the light passes through the aperture hole. My guide explained to me that on cloudy days you can watch clouds roll across the floor, beautiful and mysterious.
It’s very, very quiet inside this darkened and partially-buried space. There’s a serenity and sense of peace that’s transformative. Getting excited about what I was experiencing, I decided to dash back out to the car to grab a camera and try and make some images that conveyed how magical this place was.
It took a good five minutes to walk out to the car and back, and to my surprise, my eyes adjusted back to the darkness inside the Star Chamber almost immediately. I propped the camera up on a small fanny pack on a low shelf along one wall and tried a 30-second exposure. This first guess was over-exposed so I made an adjustment and tried again, this time stopping down my lens a couple of stops. This version was closer, but didn’t contain the tiny beam of light overhead from the aperture hole. I repositioned the camera for a vertical shot and tried one more time.
Eureka! Finally, an image that gave some sense of the wonder and magic of this place! If you look closely, you can see not only the trees and the afternoon sky on the walls and floor, but even the hint of some clouds though the bare branches.
Go check out Chris Drury’s web site. Click through the listing of Cloud Chamber installations to get a sense of the variety these things have taken as he has built them around the world.
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog