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Pronounced /ˈkæmərə/Help with pronunciation

The British press has reported this week on a pending court case involving a former member of the security service MI6 which — as is common in such sensitive matters — is likely to be held in private, or in camera in the lawyers’ jargon. So much has camera diverged from its origins that one might wonder how all those lawyers and witnesses manage to cram into such a little box ...

In the legal phrase camera is just the Latin word for a chamber, in particular the judge’s private chamber as opposed to the public courtroom; in modern times it has taken on a figurative sense relating to the quality of privacy itself, losing its literal link to the room. Originally camera meant any vaulted or arched space, but in the Romance languages derived from Latin (such as the Italian camera or the French chambre) it became a general word for any habitable space (the English chamber comes from the same root via French).

Ever since classical times it had been known that it was possible to project an image of an outdoors scene on the wall of a darkened room through a pinhole in a shutter. Such a room was called in Latin a camera obscura, literally a “dark room”. Following the invention of the lens in the sixteenth century and its first application to the camera obscura by Giambattista della Porta, some of these devices were created as public visitor attractions. They commonly had a rotatable lens and mirror system on the roof that projected a panorama on to a curved screen like a shallow white bowl. A few examples of these still exist, of which two are in Bristol and Edinburgh.

By the eighteenth century, portable devices of a related kind had come into use that displayed an image on a ground-glass screen, rotated through 90 degrees by a mirror for easy viewing from above. These were much used by artists to record a scene by drawing on translucent paper placed on the screen (the image was laterally inverted, but they solved that problem by looking at the sketch from behind). Such a portable unit was also called a camera obscura, by analogy with its big cousins.

While producing a programme for the National Trust some years ago, I had the pleasure of holding and working with the boxwood camera obscura that William Henry Fox Talbot had employed at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire while he was inventing the negative-positive process of photography in the 1830s. The device had by then been much improved through William Wollaston’s invention in 1812 of a composite lens which cured problems with the image going fuzzy around the edges; incidentally, in 1807 he had also invented the camera lucida, literally “light chamber”, which was a device employing a prism that brought together images of the object being sketched and of the sketch itself, a great boon in particular for microscopists.

Naturally enough, Fox Talbot adopted the same word for his new device as everybody used for its predecessor and so the shortened form camera, the Latin for a vaulted chamber, became applied to the little box that is now such a common part of our lives.

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Page created 15 Nov 1997