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A Most Novel Attraction: The Camera Obscura of Santa Monica

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Last Saturday I found the quietest place in Santa Monica. Anyone who has been to Palisades Park on Ocean Avenue knows that on weekends it is almost always dangerously close to pandemonium. There are people everywhere, including camera- wielding tourists bounding off buses, ready to snap pics of the ocean. Homeless folks sleep on the grass, and families crowd around buskers singing their own versions of "Hotel California" and "California Dreaming." I pushed through this loud, grimy outdoor chaos and made my way to the ultra-modern, 1950s-style Senior Recreation Center. The door was locked, but through the many windows I could see a lone man doing some kind of craft project at a long table in the back. After a few knocks, a woman appeared and let me in. I told her I was there to see the camera obscura. She smiled, took my ID and in return gave me a single key. She pointed toward a dimly lit, institutional style stairwell. "It's just up the steps," she said, before disappearing into a back office.

I made my way up the stairwell, feeling very much like the girl about to be murdered in a horror movie. At the top of the stairs was a door with a sign that said "Camera Obscura." A wilting piece of instructional paper was tacked under it. I turned the lock on the doorknob and entered a tiny, dark room. On a flat circular board in front of me, the goings on of Ocean Avenue played out like a scene from a fuzzy home video shot in the 1980s. The lens was focused on the interminable traffic that forever clogs Ocean Avenue, moving along at a snail's pace. But there was no noise -- no honking horns, no screaming children, no running engines. It was eerily quiet, a silent version of the landscape I had only just left.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

A Unique Device

Camera Obscura: a darkened enclosure having an aperture usually provided with a lens through which light from external objects enters to form an image of the objects on the opposite surface.--Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The phrase "camara obscuratio" is Latin for dark room. The technology traces its history back at least 2,000 years, before the invention of photographic cameras, to Aristotle. The Greek thinker noticed how, when a tiny pinhole of light entered a dark cave, it projected an image from outside inverted and upside down onto the cave wall before him. The sight of upside-down people, animals and structures was obscure -- even scary -- to the camera obscura's first spectators. Sixteenth-century Italian inventor Giovanni Battista della Porta reportedly sent his audiences screaming hysterically from the theater when he showed the images to them. Della Porta was later tried by the Inquisition for "practicing magic." 1

By the turn of the last century, Angelenos were established enough to be looking for fun. They spent their weekends at parks throughout Los Angeles and at the bathhouses, hotels, and boardwalks of Santa Monica. It is fitting that Santa Monica mayor Robert F. Jones not only "achieved distinction in politics, finance, business, and fraternal circles," but also had a passion for novelties and attractions. 2 In 1898, he began running a large camera obscura that he supposedly built on the beach in Santa Monica. In the days before film and television, devices like the camera obscura, kinetoscope, mutoscope, zoetrope, and magic lantern were popular novelties. There was already a superior camera obscura on Catalina Island, said to be of "French design":

The antics of the bathers, the arrival of the steamers, in short, all the outside scenes... sweep across the table like a panorama, reflecting color and movement. 3
Camera Obscura on the Santa Monica Boardwalk, ca. 1900 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Camera Obscura on the Santa Monica Boardwalk, ca. 1900 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Camera Obscura and the North Beach Bath House, ca. 1898 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Camera Obscura and the North Beach Bath House, ca. 1898 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The Jones camera obscura, though more rustic, was a big hit with the public, who paid 10 cents to view the contraption. It was considered a special device, and was highlighted in an article about the massive "development of the southwest" as a sign of modern progress, along with a new condensed milk factory, long tunnels, music composition, and a San Diego Steamship line. In 1898, Mayor Jones petitioned to move the camera obscura to the ultra-trendy Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park) in the exclusive Westlake district of Los Angeles:

The Board of Park Commissioners, at its meeting yesterday morning, practically concluded to allow a building to be erected at Westlake Park, in which a camera obscura is to be exhibited. This is a device by which the surrounding country for a distance of a mile or so is shown reflected on a board. Robert F. Jones, mayor of Santa Monica, answered the board's advertisement for novelties for the local parks, and offered to give the city $50 a year for the privilege of conductinghis camera-obscura device, as is now shown on the beach at Santa Monica. Mr. Jones promises to erect a building for the machine, and the reception of patrons at his own expense, according to an architectural plan which he submitted to the board, upon condition that he be given the contract for a term of two years, with an option on further time. The plan is for a circular building, thirty feet high and twenty deep, with terraces extending around it. 4

The Board accepted this proposition and the camera obscura was moved to Westlake. However, disagreements between Jones and the Board over expenditures brewed throughout 1899. That year, it was moved back to the beach in Santa Monica and housed in a "wooden shack like structure, perched on the pilings" 5 part of the North Beach Bathhouse attraction. According to the Los Angeles Times:

...it is a rule of establishment that every employee shall be a good swimmer and most of them, spending so much time on the beach, have become crackerjacks. The man who has charge of the Camera Obscura is also in the employ of the bath-house and from his point of vantage he is able to keep even a better watch than the rest. 6

In 1910, the city bought the camera obscura. It was so popular that it was hoped it would help bring traffic to Linda Vista Park (now Palisades Park) on Ocean Avenue. It was reported:

The unique device known as the Camera Obscura which for many years occupied a site on the beach, has been purchased by the city and is being installed on the bluff in Linda Vista Park. This was done as an inducement to secure the stopping here daily of the excursion cars of the balloon route of the Los Angeles Pacific. 7
Camera Obscura, ca. 1924 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Camera Obscura, ca. 1924 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Camera Obscura and Adult Recreation Center, 1937 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Camera Obscura and Adult Recreation Center, 1937 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Reflections

A carload of sight-seeing visitors from Illinois were listening intently to E.W. Williams as he concluded his routine spiel at Santa Monica's unique Camera Obscura. "And this is Ocean Front Avenue, the wide street you left when you came in here." He was saying to his silent hearers as he turned the pilot's wheel at the wall. A woman spoke out. "Look," she shrieked. "There's May! She's my next door neighbor!" The visitors at the time were looking at the tilting circular table on which the Camera Obscura's full color image of the scene outside was reproduced. They had watched -- indirectly of course -- a tourist partly leave their bus at the curb. And in the crowd the excited vacationist from the Middle West had spotted her friend from "back home." "Folks are always seeing somebody they know," says Williams, a twinkle in his eyes. "And sometimes there's a good laugh in it. The folks in the image don't know they are being watched, you see."--Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1946 8
'Year in and Year Out, Camera Obscura Still Draws Crowds' Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1946
'Year in and Year Out, Camera Obscura Still Draws Crowds' Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1946

Until the 1950s, the camera obscura occupied a "cupola sitting like a birdhouse" in "ramshackle quarters" in Palisades Park, right next to the Pacific Electric Station. The two story structure also contained the "Chess and Checkers Club," a forerunner of the Senior Recreation Center. It seems fitting that this increasingly antiquated device was located in a building devoted mainly to the elderly. Here, three hundred senior members met daily to play board games and socialize. E.W. Williams was one of these self-proclaimed "old duffers." For over thirteen years, the bachelor was the official camera obscura operator, though he always referred to the job as "only temporary." Admission was free, and it was estimated that several hundred people visited each day. There were occasional excitements, like the time the camera obscura reflected a burglary in real time:

About two years ago...the Camera Obscura was a thief's undoing. Just as the lens turned to pick up a view to the north, it focused on a muscular youth stealthily approaching a woman asleep in the grass of the park. The speiler stopped the camera to watch. His audience, gasping at the image before them, saw the young athlete steal the sleeper's purse and sneak away to riffle it of its contents. Williams summoned an officer. The policeman found the thief with the money, watch and other valuables from the purse still in his possession. The purse had disappeared down a storm sewer. The victim went into hysterics -- and possibly back to her home in Philadelphia with a hearty regard for the camera obscura. 9

As attractions like the camera obscura became less common, the Santa Monica device earned a special cachet. It was claimed to be one of the only revolving types of camera obscuras in the world. When tilted, it could view a beautiful panorama of Los Angeles, including "Broadway, with snow-capped mountains ...the south end of the park with Ocean Park Pier in distance ... Catalina ... on a clear day." 10 Since it cost little to nothing to maintain, and volunteers provided the tours, it was the perfect attraction for the city to hold onto.

A New Home

Viewers one day assisted police in apprehending a hit and run driver. "While we were viewing the picture we saw an autoist crash into cars parked along Ocean Ave." said Mrs. Elkins [Rec Center volunteer]. "The driver backed up and drove away but the picture was so sharp that we were able to read the license plates of the offender's car. We informed the police, thus enabling them to locate the driver."--Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1958 11

In 1955, the camera obscura moved to a new room, specifically built for it, in the new Senior Recreation Center in Palisades Park. It is now one of the only public camera obscuras on the West Coast. The Senior Recreation Center offers classes and lectures focused around the camera obscura theme. In 2004, it was estimated that during the summer around 40 people a week visited the device. According to an employee at the center, reactions to the old novelty are decidedly mixed. "A lot of people go up and say, 'Wow, that was really cool.' Other people say, 'Is that it?' " 12 I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

_____

1 "Surroundings Santa Monica: Camera Obscura Offers Warped Ocean View" Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2004
2 "Seaside townsman banquet" Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1904
3 "From Catalina: A birthday surprise" Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1896
4 "Something to draw: Westlake park to get new attraction" Los Angeles Times, Oct 14, 1898
5 "Obscura views skyline in unusual brilliance" Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1958
6 "Merry crowd on santa monica beach" Los Angeles Times, July 20 1902
7 "City buys camera santa monica" Los Angeles Times, June 30 1910
8 "Year in and year out, camera obscura still draws crowds" Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1946
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 "Obscura views skyline in unusual brilliance" Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1958
12 "Surroundings Santa Monica: Camera Obscura Offers Warped Ocean View" Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2004

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