photograph by Fredrik Nilsen

Zoe Leonard’s Camera Obscura Turns Marfa Inside Out and Upside Down


Above: "100 North Nevill Street"
by Zoe Leonard
installation view, detail


Zoe Leonard, a New York City-based photographer and sculptor, is turning Marfa inside out and upside down as part of a Chinati Foundation special exhibition.

The work is a large-scale camera obscura installation. A camera obscura is an optical device, predating photography, that uses an aperture and a darkened chamber to convert natural light into a two-dimensional image, which is typically projected onto a flat plane. In the case of “100 North Nevill Street” (the installation’s title is borrowed from the hosting Ice Plant gallery’s address), a 6-inch lens installed in one of the building’s walls casts an inverse image of the exterior landscape across the interior of the warehouse-like space. Because the image is a real-time projection of the external environment, ever-changing patterns of light and shadow, not to mention clouds and cars, keep the distorted image in constant motion.

“I hate to oversimplify what is a marvelous and complex artistic experience,” says Rob Weiner, associate director of the Chinati Foundation, “but you walk into the room, which has become a kind of camera, and you see an upside down image of the outside that fills the walls, floor and ceiling.

“Everybody has a completely different experience,” Weiner says. “You start looking at something that’s familiar in a very particular way. It makes it strange for a moment, even though it’s completely accurate. You’re looking at it in a different perspective. Like all art, it’s experience.”

Leonard’s West Texas presentation is the final installment of a worldwide series. In New York City, the artist received widespread acclaim for “945 Madison Avenue” at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Leonard had previously exhibited camera obscura installations in Venice, Italy (2012), London (“Observation Point,” 2012), and Germany (“Available Light,” 2011). The current Marfa installation is the only location projecting primarily natural scenery.

The Chinati Foundation has an evolving relationship with Leonard, who first visited Marfa with a friend several years ago. Since then, Leonard has returned to Chinati to exhibit her photography, and in 2010 performed a spoken word piece called “This Is Where I Was” based on more than 1,000 collected postcards of Niagara Falls.

The Ice Plant is located on East Oak Street between North Nevill and Salarosa streets in Marfa. “100 North Nevill Street” is free and open to the public from noon to 2 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, until the end of the year.