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Camera obscura and other photo stuff Print E-mail
16 February 2006
The history of photography is told at the Bensusan Museum, from the first shadow puppets to the movies that keep us entertained today.

DID you know that there's a periscope on the top of the Museum Africa building, looking down on the goings-on of Newtown?

Well, actually, it's a camera obscura, which operates much like a periscope, and it gives the viewer a 360° view of what is happening outside the building. It was built on the top floor of the Bensusan Museum of Photography in about 2001, as a Blue IQ project costing roughly R200 000. It was custom built for the museum - there are only five others in the country.

The Bensusan Museum of Photography on the top floor of Museum Africa
The Bensusan Museum of Photography on the top floor of Museum Africa

Inside the building the image is projected on to a large round table and a metre or so above the table is a ring that moves, moving the mechanism that holds the mirror on the roof. As the ring moves so does the image on the table.

These periscope mechanisms were first recorded in Chinese writings from about 500BC, says Jonathan Frost, the curator of the museum, which is housed on the top floor of Museum Africa in Newtown.

The museum has one of the world's best collections of photographic records and documents and, of course, cameras.


It was begun with a donation from amateur photographer and sometime Joburg mayor, Dr Arthur Bensusan, in 1968. He donated his entire 30-year collection: 400 antique cameras, 5 000 photographs and 2 000 photographic books, some of which date back to 1860.

In November 1968 Bensusan told the Rand Daily Mail newspaper, "The museum will illustrate the history of photography and the history of South Africa as seen through the eye of the camera."

A number of these cameras are on display at the museum, making for a fascinating study. Part of Bensusan's original collection is a camera belonging to British statesman Winston Churchill, and perhaps the first official war photograph - one taken in 1854 of a Crimean War scene. Also in the collection are several spy cameras from the 1800s, made to look like watches, books and binoculars.

Besides collecting photography books, the museum continues to collect cuttings, pamphlets and journals, and has made some valuable additions to its wonderful collection.

First negative

The acquisition in 1970 of the first negative ever made is the most special of these. It was taken by the inventor of photography, William Fox Talbot, in 1835, with the help of a camera obscura.

The negative, several centimetres in size, is of the oriel window of Lacock Abbey in England. The City bought it for R860, according to The Star of October 1970, acquiring it from Bensusan. There are only three other such negatives in the world - two in Britain and one in Russia.

Talbot once said: "I do not profess to have perfected an art but to have commenced one, the limits of which it is not possible at present exactly to ascertain. I only claim to have based this art on a secure foundation. It will be for a more skilled hand than mine to rear the superstructure."

He was a respected philosopher, classicist, Egyptologist, mathematician, philologist, transcriber and translator.

"I got it seven or eight years ago for £2,5s from a British dealer who did not know what it was," Bensusan told The Star in October 1970. Now aged 85, he says he has seen two of the other three negatives. Of the museum's negative, he says, "Ours is by far the crudest, the oldest and the less distinct."


One of the museum's displays shows a timeline of the development of cinematography. The first pictures shown to an audience thousands of years ago were shadow puppets projected on to a wall with light. This was common in China at the time.

Then, in the 1700s, the magic lantern was invented. It showed paintings moved through a box with a light, usually a candle or an oil lamp, reflecting the images on to a screen. Travelling magic lantern showmen appeared in Europe in the early 1800s.

This was developed into magic lantern slides, where strips of pictures were slid through the lantern, giving a sense of movement and action. By 1865 photographic transparencies, which were coloured by hand, were being developed.

By 1833 a phenakistoscope appeared - it was a spinning disc with 16 holes, which was spun in front of a mirror. If the disc spun quickly it looked like the picture moved. In 1878 the dry plate negative was created, on which a series of pictures were produced. The first movies were about to be born.

In 1895 France's August and Louis Lumiere produced the first feature films. Titles included The family tea table, The railway station, The forge, Street in Paris, and Sea bathing in the Mediterranean.

By the end of 1896 the moving picture was well established as a form of entertainment but without sound, which was often provided by a pianist in the cinema. In 1910 the Allefex machine was invented. This provided sound effects like a shotgun, rain and hail, waves, crashing china, a dog's bark and a child's cry.

It was a slow process, with some innovative minds working methodically on their inventions. Today we take movies for granted.

Frost admits that the museum needs to get fully up to date, with examples of digital cameras. But as always with museums, money is the issue.



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Last Updated on 19 January 2012