What is Greenport’s Camera Obscura?

The image produced by the camera obscura in Mitchell Park. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

The image produced by the camera obscura in Mitchell Park. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Before this summer the only things I thought knew about a camera obscura is that the term is Latin and the one in Greenport never appeared to be open.

I soon learned, however, that the latter wasn’t true. While there is no sign posted outside of the Mitchell Park attraction and the building is usually locked, all you need is a $1 and an available marina employee to enjoy a 360-degree view of the village’s waterfront.

And it is really cool.

A camera obscura is an ancient technology that led to the development of the modern camera. According to the Greenport Village website, “The camera obscura demonstrates a natural effect of physics wherein if a small hole is made in the wall of a completely darkened room, an inverted image of the scene outside the window will be produced on the opposite wall of the room.”

In Greenport, the camera obscura is a darkened room into which light enters through a small opening, projecting a live image onto a flat, circular table.

I attempted to visit the camera obscura on an overcast day in June, but was told to come back when there would be less clouds blocking my view. I returned on a sweltering August day when I learned that the air conditioning inside the small, dark building wasn’t working.

“It’s about 400 degrees in there right now,” one marina employee joked.

While he was surely exaggerating, the result was a hot and breezeless room, though bearable as the exhibit only takes a few minutes to enjoy.

When the image first appeared for me, the scene was so sharp it looked like a still digital photograph. But I soon saw the waters of Peconic Bay were flowing by and people were walking in and out of view.

You can see yachts moored in the harbor, misters cooling off people in Mitchell Park and diners walking toward Claudio’s.

Lifelong Greenport resident and marina staffer Everett Nichols raised and lowered the table brining the image in and out of focus as he explained what I was seeing.

The oddly shaped building, with a periscope like lens protruding from its top, is often a conversation piece for people visiting the village, he said.

“There’s a lot of people who come out here and say ‘What is that,'” Nichols noted, added that the camera receives about four groups of visitors a day. “It’s really not a camera. It’s almost like a telescope.”

The Greenport camera obscura, designed by New York City architect Gary Paul, first opened to the public in August 2005.

It was closed from 2010 through 2012 after its motorized lens began to jam, according to a report in The Suffolk Times.

Call (631) 477-2200 for a tour, or visit the window at the nearby Greenport Village Marina office. There are no set hours and the exhibit is available by appointment.

The exterior of the camera obscura in Greenport. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

The exterior of the camera obscura in Greenport. (Credit: Vera Chinese)