Art project puts pictures in a whole new light

Long before we took photography for granted by snapping selfies and pictures of our meals at whim, people would once gather inside strange shelters and marvel at moving images projected onto a flat surface.

Long before we took photography for granted by snapping selfies and pictures of our meals at whim, people would once gather inside strange shelters and marvel at moving images projected onto a flat surface.

Anyone walking by the SS Klondike on Thursday and Friday evening this week can experience this form of antiquated entertainment, called a camera obscura.

Donald Lawrence, a visual arts professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., will be setting up a tent-like version of the camera and offering workshops on both nights.

Participants will use the images projected onto a large drawing board to sketch their surroundings. Some of the work will be exhibited in the community gallery space at the Yukon Arts Centre.

It’s part of the lead up to the upcoming Midnight Sun Camera Obscura Festival, held in Dawson City on June 17-21.

The camera obscura was initially used in the 15th and 16th centuries by artists to help them draw their subjects more accurately, but it also became popular among scientists, who used them to observe solar phenomena.

Think of a cross between a giant pinhole camera and a periscope. Light shines into a dark chamber at the top of a structure and bounces off a mirror downwards and onto a flat surface.

The camera obscura’s popularity peaked in the late 19th century, when elaborate versions of the device were built to offer 360-degree views, and became used for entertainment purposes at fairs and tourist attractions in areas such as Central Park, San Francisco and England.

Lawrence estimates he’s built about a half-dozen camera obscuras so far. The first was a walk-in camera he set up when he was a graduate student at York University in Toronto, while another featured a hooded structure on top of a kayak.

“My things tend to be more experimental,” he said.

The interest in the camera came from an art class he took during his BFA at the University of Victoria, around 1985.

“My drawing instructor noticed that I had an interest in spatial relationships between foreground and background objects,” he said.

“He was a photographer and he loaned me a view camera, the ones where you put the hood on the back of your head. Around the same time I also became interested in art history from the 17th century and that research led me to finding out about public camera obscuras.”

Some artists are interested in them because of the way they affect the quality of light, he said, while others are more interested in the historical aspect and how it is tied to colonialism.

But there is enough middle ground for people from both backgrounds to come together and enjoy what it has to offer, he added.

The workshops in Whitehorse and festival in Dawson City are tied to a larger, five-year initiative called The Camera Obscura Project. Lawrence is the group’s principal investigator.

“The aim is to bring together this group of people from diverse backgrounds as a research group, to exchange ideas and understand each other’s practices,” Lawrence said.

“Last year the group came together to meet in a seminar format to show one another what they do, and that was also a planning session for what we’re doing this year.”

A future publication will anthologize this year’s findings and give the opportunity to academics to take their ideas a bit further, he said.

Several students from Thompson Rivers University, as well as one from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, are acting as research assistants during the project.

Camera obscuras will be set up in Dawson City, including one that Lawrence is mounting to the side of the George Black Ferry.

The workshops in Whitehorse are limited to eight participants, but Lawrence said he encourages people to contact him to find out if there is any room.

“And of course, to drop by anyway and we can show them the camera,” he added.

Lawrence can be reached at

Contact Myles Dolphin at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Liberal leader Sandy Silver speaks outside his campaign headquarters in Dawson City following early poll results on April 12. (Robin Sharp/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Minority government results will wait on tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin

The Yukon Party and the Liberal Party currently have secured the same amount of seats

Dawson the dog sits next to the Chariot Patrick Jackson has loaded and rigged up to walk the Dempster Highway from where it begins, off the North Klondike Highway, to the Arctic Circle. (Submitted)
Walking the Dempster

Patrick Jackson gets set for 405-kilometre journey

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
YUKONOMIST: The Neapolitan election

Do you remember those old bricks of Neapolitan ice cream from birthday… Continue reading

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Exposure notice issued for April 3 Air North flight

Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley has issued another… Continue reading

Emily Tredger at NDP election night headquarters after winning the Whitehorse Centre riding. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Emily Tredger takes Whitehorse Centre for NDP

MLA-elect ready to get to work in new role

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Two new cases of COVID-19 variant identified in territory

“If variants were to get out of control in the Yukon, the impact could be serious.”

Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

A new conservancy in northern B.C. is adjacent to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (Courtesy BC Parks)
Ice Mountain Lands near Telegraph Creek, B.C., granted conservancy protection

The conservancy is the first step in a multi-year Tahltan Stewardship Initiative

Yukon RCMP reported a child pornography-related arrest on April 1. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press file)
Whitehorse man arrested on child pornography charges

The 43-year-old was charged with possession of child pornography and making child pornography

Most Read