Three out of every four terms, I teach a beginning photography class. Often, for an introductory lecture, I assign several Wallace Stevens poems. One of my favorites is Prelude to Objects
If he will be heaven after death,
If, while he lives, he hears himself
Sounded in music, if the sun,
Stormer, is the color of a self
As certainly as night is the color
Of a self, if, without sentiment,
He is what he hears and sees and if,
Without pahtos, he feels what he hears
And sees, being nothing otherwise,
Having nothing otherwise, he has not
To go to the Louvre to behold himself.
Like my teacher Abe Morell before me, when we meet to discuss the Stevens’ poetry (I love Stevens, as so much of his writing is about the phenomenon of seeing), we sit in a camera obscura. The windows in the classroom are all along one wall, so it is easy for me to transform the room into a camera. I blacken the room by covering the windows with heavy, black plastic. Once all the windows are covered, I cut a small hole in the middle of the plastic. Projected through the small circular aperture, he view from the window suddenly appears on the blank wall of the room, everything upside down and backwards.
We sit in the camera obscura for 20 minutes or more, talking about Wallace Stevens and the phenomenon of seeing, the phenomenon both physically and metaphysically, and then I try to convince them that it is possible to see things as you’ve never seen them before, even the simplest things you see everyday. And this is illustrated by the camera obscura. It works everytime; I still love it too.