An interesting tidbit of history that has always captivated my imagination is the ancient art of observing light.  Although historians have just scratched the surface of what is known about human history, we do have a deep recorded history of the relationship between mankind and the camera. Since the dawn of human history, the camera has played an integral role in the way we communicate with one another and build identities through symbolism.

Symbolic Interactionism (SI)

The early camera was used to create symbols and symbols are the basis of human communication. The semiotic tradition of communication theory focuses on the meanings and usage behind signs and symbols in a social context (Littlejohn, Foss, & Oetzel). Looking at the theory of Symbolic Interactionism (SI), we can see our ancient ancestors using the camera as a tool for self-expression, communication and identification.

George Herbert Mead – the founder of SI; teaches that as people interact with one another, over time through symbolic communication, they grow to understand things in similar ways (Littlejohn, Foss, & Oetzel). Society itself relies on interactions between people, which builds common understanding of everything that we know; from rules, laws, religion to fashion, sports and even the names of objects and places. We can understand that the theory of SI heavily revolves around the communicator, because the communicator is not only creating symbol for others, but also for themselves (Littlejohn, Foss, & Oetzel).

Mozi’s Projector

Despite the fact that ancient Egyptians and Assyrians have claims to hieroglyphs which depict a rudimentary optical lens, Chinese scholar and philosopher Mozi (Mo Tzu) 391 BCE, is credited by most historians as being the first recorded individual that used a camera obscura (Guarnieri). Mozi was not only a scholar and philosopher, but also a popular entertainer. He would use the camera obscura to project entertaining images for people to enjoy.

Mozi, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner

Euclid & Aristotle’s Eclipse Observation

A century later in ancient Greece, mathematician Euclid was using the camera obscura to make scientific observations, followed by Aristotle, who used the camera obscura to observe solar eclipses (Guarnieri).

Hassan Ibn Al-Haytham’s Eye and Lens Discoveries

Mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Ibn al-Haytham conducted the most conclusive experiments using the camera obscura to date; producing his famous ‘Book of Optics’ in 1021 CE. Before Ibn al-Haytham’s experiments, scientists throughout history thought that we are able to see due to light beams which radiate from our eyes. Ibn al-Haytham disproved this by observing that during an eclipse, the image of the sun is projected towards the earth (Raynaud).


Leonardo di Vinci’s Art and Science Experiments

During the European renaissance, it is interesting to point out that Leonardo di Vinci published the Codex Atlanticus in which the camera obscura was accurately described around the year 1515. The same time in which di Vinci was experimenting with the camera obscura was the same time that we see extremely detailed and life-like painting emerge in Europe – from Leonardo di Vinci himself as well. If we can put two and two together, we can understand that there was a correlation.

Leonardo da Vinci – geared device assembled and disassembled

Johannes Vermeer’s Camera Obscura Painting Mastery

The correlation between utilization of camera obscura and implementation into painting technique is apparent when analyzing the work of Dutch master artisan Vermeer. Modern day art scholars have written hundreds of articles in regards to Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura to capture fine details within his paintings that most artist would not achieve with conventional methods (Jelley).  Although there is no way to prove that Vermeer was a ‘tracing’ artist (he was a formally trained artist in his own right), yet his most intricate works contain artifacts indicate imperfections derived from lens refraction, such as chromatic and spherical aberration, and diffraction. This simply means that Vermeer copied the imperfections that are commonly produced by an image projected through a lens. Although scholars are full of conjecture about Vermeer’s method (did he paint upside-down images produced by the camera obscura, or use a system of mirrors to flip the image right-side-up), the means remains clear as mud.   

Johannes Vermeer – Girl with a Pearl Earring 1665 (chromatic aberration appears between high contracting areas and produces a green or purple fringe. )

Matt Gatton’s Paleo-Camera Research

Image from:, where you can read more of Matt Gatton’s research.

Scholar of camera antiquity, Matt Gatton has conducted a tremendous amount of research and has provided astounding evidence to the existence of the camera during the paleolithic era ( To simplify his research – the paleolithic people (1.2 million years ago to 12,500 BCE) lived in tents made from tree branch frames with thick animal skin coverings. Gatton explains that a small hole the tent’s animal skin, would replicate a camera obscura/pinhole camera effect inside of the crepuscule tent. The paleolithic people then traced the image produced on the opposite wall/skin of the tent. They then copied the image onto other objects such as cave walls and stone tablets (Gatton).


My whole point of this post was to draw light upon the importance of the camera throughout time. From our current era of self-absorbed selfies, back through the renaissance with its use for projecting images to trace intricate paintings, to understanding that we do not emit light beams from our eyes in order to see, and even back to the paleolithic (caveman) era to draw symbols on cave-walls for self-expression. The camera is more important and ubiquitous that we can imagine and we can only begin to imaging what we will be using cameras for in the future.


Gatton, M. (2019). Paleo-Camera. Retrieved from Paleo-Camera:
Guarnieri, M. (2018). Historical Suyvey on Light Technologies. IEEE, 25881-25897.
Jelley, J. (2013). From Perception to Paint: the Practical Use of the Camera Obscura in the Time of Vermeer. Art and Perception, 19-47.
Littlejohn, S. W., Foss, K. A., & Oetzel, J. G. (2017). Theories of Human Communication. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc.
Mencius, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner
Raynaud, D. (2016). A Critical Edition of Ibn al-Haytham’s On the Shape of the Eclipse. Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences, 1-82.


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