Since 2011 American artist Zoe Leonard (born 1961) has mounted six camera obscura installations in Cologne, London, New York (twice), Venice, Italy and Marfa, Texas. Leonard has made photographs since her teenage years, and she has regularly created sculpture as well; the camera obscurae blend these two practices as they turn an entire space, and its visitors, into elements in a photosculptural environment.
The camera obscura is regularly explained as the oldest known form of photography. Puncturing one wall of a blacked-out chamber will yield in daylight hours a laterally reversed projection of the outside world onto the darkened surfaces inside. This marvelous discovery, studied everywhere from ancient China to Enlightenment-era Europe, gives a common basis to science and art across humanity. Photography, born of twin desires for knowledge and enchantment, lays claim through the camera obscura to the status of a transhistorical, even transcendent enterprise.
Leonard likens the camera obscura to a “primal consciousness.” At the same time, the device serves to further her lifelong concerns with institutional and political specifics in the present. For these purposes the camera obscura is not transcendent but fleeting, impossible to capture, and irrevocably bound to its site. The projections and the surfaces on which they land are fundamentally conditioned by the space (chosen but never built by the artist) and what is “going on” in the world around it. The camera obscura is a metaphor for a mind attuned to historical conditions, and it resists the traffic in portable luxury commodities that governs art in general. With a nod to Yve-Alain Bois’ writing on El Lissitzky, we want to say that one reading reverses, but does not cancel, the other; and that reversibility, as an operating principle, still carries a radical potential.
Matthew Witkovsky is the Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair & Curator, department of photography, at the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 (Thames & Hudson, 2007) and editor of several volumes, including Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1977 (Yale, 2012) and, most recently, Josef Koudelka (Yale, 2014).