Capturing the Rhythm of
Downtown Santa Monica
Santa Monica Centric
Camera Obscura turns 120
By Kevin Herrera

The theory which spawned humankind's first camera obscura was devised thousands of years ago, yet the primitive "Victorian web cam" still has the power to mesmerize us all, even though more advanced forms of entertainment have been unveiled, from motion pictures to the latest in virtual and augmented reality.


Is it because the camera obscura sparks nostalgia, or is it that it requires us to be active participants, whereas so much technology today turns us into passive observers? Perhaps its simplicity still fascinates us for it laid the foundation for one of our favorite mediums — photography.


If you haven't visited the Santa Monica Camera Obscura in Palisades Park, then you have the perfect excuse to do so this winter. The brainchild of one of Santa Monica's earliest boosters turns 120 years old this April and Santa Monica Cultural Affairs department has teamed up with the Echo Park Film Center collective to develop a short film titled, I'll Be Your Mirror. The short film is a poetic documentary that utilizes analog film tools and animation techniques along with archival imagery and first-person accounts.



The collective will lead weekly public work sessions alongside workshops and events, in a series that brings the magic of moving pictures while celebrating the history of Santa Monica's iconic attraction.


(The Pacific Ocean can be seen reflected opon the Camera Obscura's moveable display disk.) 


All the action takes place at the Camera Obscura Art Lab at 1450 Ocean. Formerly the City's Senior Center, the modernist structure with stunning views of the Santa Monica Bay has blossomed into a center for self expression while fostering stronger community connections as residents from all walks of life gather to exercise, create and conversate.  


"It's all about adult participation and creativity in the arts and learning from working artists," said Naomi Okuyama, the art lab's creative coordinator.


The City Council in 2012 voted in favor of consolidating senior services on Fourth Street at the Ken Edwards Center in partnership with the nonprofit WISE & Healthy Aging, which was serving lunches, offering meditation and writing classes, and other services for seniors. While controversial at the time, that decision paved the way for expanded cultural offerings for Santa Monica's adults at the Palisades Park center.


Today Santa Monica College's Emeritus College offers a host of activities at the center, while Naomi curates a robust artist-in-residence program. Residents can learn how to make movies, master popular Bollywood dance moves or sew skirts made from recycled T-shirts.


"It's really been a blessing to have a space to do my work, but it's also like a fishbowl with people coming through, looking through the glass. I open the door, people come in to talk and it's just great for people to see an artist working," said Lisa Diane Wedgeworth, the current artist in residence at the Camera Obscura Art Lab. Wedgeworth lost her South L.A. studio to a medical marijuana pharmacy and had been searching for a new space to create her series of works that use various colors of fake hair and adhesive to tell the stories of women she has photographed who don various braids and extensions as a way to express their personal style.


(Lisa Diane Wedgeworth continues work on her latest series of artworks using hair extensions.)


Like so many others, Wedgeworth would drive by the Camera Obscura and wonder what was inside. She finally took the short walk up the flight of stairs leading to the camera and experienced the magic for herself.


"It's something we don't see every day," she said of the camera. "Yeah we have our phones and are taking selfies, but to engage in the practice of twisting something, moving our bodies and seeing something familiar but from a different angle, it's just a fascinating experience. You're learning how cameras actually work and you get a chance to step away from digital technologies for something analogue."


A camera obscura, which comes from the Latin phrase "camara obscura" for dark chamber or darkened room, is a device in a shape of a box or a room that lets the light in through a small opening on one side and projects it on the other. The image projected is upside down, while more sophisticated cameras use lenses to project an image upwards and right-side up.


Camera obscuras were originally used as an aid for drawing and for entertainment. The oldest mention of a camera obscura and its effects is by Mozi, a Chinese philosopher, during the 5th century BC. The Greek philosopher Aristotle noticed in the 4th century that light from a sun eclipse that passed through holes between the leaves projected an imagine of the eclipsed sun on the ground.


Camera obscuras became immensely popular during the late 1890s before the days of silent films and, later, television. It was then that Santa Monica Mayor Robert F. Jones constructed a large camera obscura on the beach as an attraction to help draw more visitors to Santa Monica, which was rapidly becoming a tourist destination. The mayor charged a relatively hefty admission fee: 10 cents, which is roughly $3 today.


Camera Obscura was moved to its current mid-century modern home in Palisades Park in 1955, a building designed by noted architect Weldon J. Fulton and donated to the City of Santa Monica by Marcellus Joslyn. Today, visitors can experience the optical device Monday through Friday 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission is free.


Camera Obscura Anniversary Events Schedule:


I'll Be Your Mirror Public Work Sessions, Fridays and Saturdays, November  24 - December 22, 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. | RSVP

All are welcome to stop by an Echo Park Film Center work session at the Camera Obscura Art Lab to see how the film is progressing and help out with filming, animation, voice overs, soundtracks and more. No experience necessary.


Cinematic Stocking Stuffers with Repair Café, Saturday, Dec. 1, 12 - 4 p.m. | RSVP

Learn how to make flip books, Thaumatropes, View-Master reels and kaleidoscopes with workshop facilitators Emett Casey, Paolo Davanzo, Lisa Marr, Shauna McGarry, Beaux Mingus and Gina Napolitan.


Cyanotype Workshop with Echo Park Film Center, Saturday, Dec. 8, 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. | $5 | Register

Cyanotype is a monochromatic contact process that uses sun and shadow to produce beautiful blue and white images. Workshop facilitators are Dicky Bahto, Chloe Reyes and Penelope Uribe-Abee.

Make Your Own Camera Obscura with Echo Park Film Center, Saturday, Dec. 8, 1-4 p.m. | $5 | Register

Learn to make a camera obscura in this hands-on workshop utilizing a few simple components and an ancient discovery. Workshop facilitators are Brenda Contreras, Beaux Mingus, Gina Napolitian  and Nicole Ucedo.


Super 8 Eco-Processing with Echo Park Film Center, Saturday, Dec. 15, 12 - 4 p.m. | $5 | Register

Participants will explore the history, application and tender sophistication of small format filmmaking. Films will be processed using a developer made organic ingredients such as instant coffee, local flowers and seaweed. A screening of one of EPFC's poetic documentary City Symphonies will follow. Workshop facilitators are Andrew Kim, Nicole Ucedo and Penelope Uribe-Abee.


Home Movie Day, Saturday, December 22, 12-4pm | Free | RSVP

Participants are asked to bring home movies on 16mm, 8mm and Super 8 films, VHS, mini-DV tapes, and DVDs for a group screening. Facilitators Brenda Contreras, Shauna McGarry and Cosmo Segurson will share tips on how to store and preserve precious family history as well as answer questions about analog or digital cameras and projectors. Documentary screenings of Free Time & Sunshine: Home Movies In Southern Californiacreated by the Echo Park Film Center Youth Class will follow.

 People can RSVP to the screening of the finished film, "I'll Be Your Mirror" on Saturday January 26 at 4pm:

For more information about the Echo Park Film Center and Santa Monica Cultural Affairs, please visit and #ArtSaMo

Kevin Herrera is a former journalist turned marketing and communication expert, beer enthusiast, cyclist, cultural observer/commentator and expert on all things Downtown Santa Monica. He is currently the sr. marketing & communication manager for Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.