With all of the amazing things our modern technical devices can do, we can forget that sometimes the most spectacular things can be created using the simplest technology. Over the past week, UK-based photographer, educator and camera maker Brendan Barry used the rudimentary technology of a camera obscura to turn the skyscraper at 101 Park Avenue in Midtown into a giant camera. 101 Park Avenue is also where the Museum of the Dog is located, and has been a filming location for The Avengers (the crash site) and the office of George Constanza in Seinfeld. The result is a giant 26,000 square foot dark room outfitted with lenses to capture large format photographs of the surrounding Manhattan skyline. Untaped Cities took a walk around inside to see how it works.
A camera obscura is a photographic device that dates back to ancient times and was a precursor to the modern day camera. Its latin name means “dark chamber.” The most basic camera obscura is a darkened room with a tiny hole for light to pass through. The light that comes through cast an upside-down image of the scene outside on the chamber’s wall. Camera obscuras rose in popularity in the 16th century and started to include lenses. Over time the technology was adapted for different uses and made into different forms including small pocket sized versions. The Skyscraper Camera Obscura at 101 Park Avenue takes the technology back to a large scale.
Brendan Barry, along with a group of students from the Aperture Foundation and Red Hook Labs covered 160 windows of 101 Park Avenue’s 46th floor and outfitted them with lenses to create the Skyscraper Camera Obscura. Your eyes need time to adjust to the black-out darkness as you enter the camera obscura from the sunny street below. Around the room, each lens captures a part of the cityscape outside the window and projects it onto a large screen.
Using special large format direct positive paper, these images of the 360-degree view were developed into large prints by Barry and his team of students in a darkroom lab that was also created inside the camera obscura. The lenses captured shots of iconic New York City buildings like the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the Met Life Building above Grand Central Terminal. In addition to the camera obscura inside the building, Barry also took to the street to photograph people in the plaza using a camera obscura made out of a scale replica of 101 Park Ave.
The Skyscraper Camera Obscura project was created by Favorite Child Creative director Nicholas Kalikow who reached out to Barry for the site-specific project. Favorite Child Creative produced the installation and simultaneously created a behind-the-scenes documentary about the project.