A New Way Of Seeing

CRW_3967 – New York Camera Obscura

My wife was still working in NYC helping property owners get their plans approved by the Department of Buildings. She was fortunate to have lots of interesting clients with challenging projects. She was known as the patron saint of impossible projects. One day she came home and said I had to meet her new client Charles Schwartz. He was building a camera obscura on the roof of his building on the upper east side. It had a sweeping view of Central Park and the upper west side of the city. Charles shared a love for photography and a fascination with experimentation. We quickly became devoted friends and collaborators. He invited me to use the camera obscura to interpret its views in my own way. I thought OK I’ll spend a day making pictures and that would be it. After all, how many pictures can you take when you can’t “move your feet?” I thought the single vantage point would limit the imagery. Boy, was I wrong.

I brought my photo paper and chemistry to the 13th floor and made direct exposures of the image from the camera obscura onto the photo paper. I quickly ran the exposed paper down the hall to a bathroom where I processed the images. It was strange to be recreating my bathroom darkrooms of the 1960’s! My pictures were not inspiring. Charles and I both knew we could do better.

We decided to combine digital photography with the pre-photographic camera obscura. Charles operated the camera obscura while I took digital photographs of the magic images that appeared in the darkened room.  We combined Charles’ excitement and imagination with my technical skills and experience incrementally creating, refining, and improving images. My concern about the limited number of pictures available from one vantage point was unfounded. We worked for about 5 years and our collaboration produced thousands of images. We even set up a scenario where two people were visible in a window of the Guggenheim Museum annex that was visible from the camera obscura. They were voyeurs looking out the window while we were voyeurs watching them. We experimented with objects on the table of the camera obscura, played with perspective and ended up with a substantial body of work which was exhibited at the Alan Klotz Gallery in 2005.  A selection of our work is on my website.

Charles introduced me to the fascinating worlds of vintage photography and vernacular photography.  His “day job” was selling and buying 19th century images. His curiosity and imagination led him to collect everything from Japanese woodblock print images of photographers to modern portraits of photographers, daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes of dead children, or of cows and a large collection of 19th century images of dogs. He shared his knowledge of old ways of making pictures as well as insights into the world of art photography. My gratitude to Charles Schwartz is boundless.