Camera obscura shines light on ‘Digital Identity’ through other lens


Artist Daniel Levin’s camera osbcura installation, featuring a lens designed by a Kodak engineer, is on display at Miller Park this week. Submitted photo.

Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer

In the fifth century BCE, Chinese philosopher Mo Ti wrote about the optical properties of the pinhole camera, a device that could be used to project an upside-down image of the world. In the 13th century CE, Roger Bacon used one to observe the solar eclipse. Leonardo Da Vinci and his Renaissance colleagues used the light device to help render realistic 2D representations of 3D landscapes, followed by the Dutch Masters in the 17th century.

Beginning Saturday at Miller Park, Daniel Levin’s installation of a camera obscura continues that tradition with a modern twist to provide a counterpoint to the morning lecture series theme, “Digital Identity.”

The large white structure between Miller Bell Tower and the Athenaeum Hotel is shaped, Levin said, “like a mountain with a bite taken out of the top of it.”

“The idea of the mountain is that you have all this information, but the truth is you can’t ever have all of the information,” he said.

Levin’s installation provokes thoughts about individual identity, providing a technology-free encounter that raises questions about people’s ability to interpret the world.

“I was interested in exploring the idea in postmodernism of the tenet of multiple truths,” Levin said. “There is not one truth, so if you and I look at the same thing, because of our life experience, although we’re standing near each other when we witness it, we might have a different read on what happens. And we’re both right.”

Chautauquans who enter the camera obscura will have a disc coated in reflective white paint, on which they can see a scene from outside, in color and in motion.

“It’s about image-making and identity. What is real?” Levin said. “The camera obscura helps explore issues of truth in order to make the decision to avoid stereotyping. If you really look at the details within, there’s no need to stereotype.”

Though the issue of digital identity is a recent and rising phenomenon, the camera obscura and its principles are very old ideas.

“It’s almost a yin-yang, as I see it,” Levin said. “It’s the non-digital, it’s the opposite of digital. It’s also very much present today — it’s so present that it’s fleeting. When you look at the image, it’s gone.”

Pinhole cameras are often used to make photographs, but Levin said the idea of capturing a frame is antithetical to his intent with the project. He does, however, have much experience with photography, having worked for many years as a photographer. He has had commissions to take portraits of people including Margaret Thatcher, Laura Bush, Hilary Swank, Colin Powell, and Barbara and George H. W. Bush.

Levin is currently an assistant professor of photography at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, after entering academia and receiving a master’s degree in art and digital culture from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His camera obscura was initially shown in Vermont, and this is its first installation since then.

“I can’t think of a more ideal place to have this installed,” he said. “It’s meant to be in a certain site because of the way it falls into the landscape, but way more important than that is that the population of those who frequent the Institution are critical thinkers. People who look at the world and question and want to learn more — they’re lifelong learners, and that is exactly what this is about.

“It’s not to question what you think of as true, it’s to gather as much information as you can and think critically about it. That’s what I think people do at Chautauqua, but they do it with shorts on and on a sailboat.”

Levin’s camera obscura is one of very few of its type around the world, and it is even more unique for its aesthetic as well as functional properties. Levin collaborated with steel fabricators and fabric artists to create the installation. The lens was designed by the man who headed the team that designed the Kodak imaging system in the Lunar Orbiter that mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo landing.

The installation will be up all week, and Levin will be in residence on the grounds to engage in discussion. Levin hopes that his art will provide another medium through which to contemplate digital identity, to tangibly explore the idea of multiple truths.

“To see a moving image that is color, and it keeps moving, and you know what’s happening is happening outside, but you’re inside, and there are no electronics — it’s magical,” he said.