Camera Obscura

Historical Landmark May 23, 2001

August 23, 1987
San Francisco Examiner

The Magazine of
Northern California

Inside the Camera Obscura by Karen Evans

David Warren spends his days in a building shaped like a camera out by the Cliff House. Anytime anyone gets close to his seaside attraction, Warren pokes his head through the round window of his plastic "box office" --housed just to the left of the lenslike door, and asks, "Have you seen the camera obscura?"

What they'll see, if they pay their dollar and open themselves up to Warren's enthusiasm, is sheer magic. They'll also get to know a man who loves what he does. "Take a moment to let your eyes adjust," Warren tells his guests, once they've walked through the swinging doors into his world. He rests his hands on the white rail surrounding what looks like a satellite dish, pointed toward the sky, dominating the small room. Swimming across that dish is a scene that looks like a painting-- a painting in motion.

Depending on where the camera obscura's periscope like lens is pointed at the moment, the view on the dish is of the walls of the Cliff House, or of the man-made concrete cliffs across the street, or of the condos lining the Great Highway where Playland at the Beach to be or of the Seal Rocks and the Pacific. As people watch, birds fly across the screen, a surfer rides a wave, the sea lions stretch on the rocks.

"The camera takes six minutes to go all the way around, but you can stay as long as you like, "Warren tells his guests. One man last week stayed six hours." At this point, Warren can put on a taped narration and go back into his box office, but more often than not, he stays around, just to watch the reactions and share the discovery. "What you are seeing is a rotating picture of what's happening outside at this very moment, " Warren tells his small, rapt audience. "It works on the principle of the periscope. It reflects eighteen degrees of the view from outside, through an optically flattened, front surface-finished mirror and a series of concave and convex lenses, on to a parabolic or curved screen.

"It was the first camera," Warren goes on to explain. "The camera obscura was invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century. His neighbors thought it was the instrument of the devil. They thought he could predict the future, the past and the present. They banned the creation because they believed it was related to the super- natural. That's because, "Warren continues, in his soft voice, "people would go in and then go out and see their friends and say, "I saw you when I was in the camera obscura," and people would think they'd seen the future because they had no idea about projected image."

David Warren, on the other hand, several centuries removed from da Vinci's time, has a lot of ideas about the projected image and the camera obscura. There's very little he can't tell you about this rare device -- how Isaac Newton wrote about it, or Copernicus charted the stars with it, or Renaissance artists painted with it.

"I've been an artist all my life," he says, "and vision and light and shadow are wondrous things to me. Inside you become entrenched, especially people into the visual arts or visual optics and light.

"The vision of your eye opens up in there," Warren says. "You see things differently. Your optic nerve is being affected in a different way. It stimulates the chemical makeup and your emotions. It moves me to tears." As the camera swings around to capture the view across the street from the Cliff House, Warren tells his viewers, "This is the old Playland at the Beach. If you are a registered voter, you can sign a petition as you go out to put something there other than more condominiums."

There's a reason that the former site of Playland holds a special place in Warren's heart. That's where he first saw the camera obscura, when he was sixteen years old. As a young man, Warren had show business in his bones; he ran away with the carnival, he learned how to eat fire.

Then Warren grew up. worked on his career as a salesman, and lost touch with his beloved camera. When things began to fall apart for him, he found it again.

"I ended up separated from my family," he says. "My wife divorced me. I had five kids, and I went into a deep depression. How can you sell anything at that point?

He took up some of his old interests. He signed up for the docent's course at the Exploratorium and began doing research on Playland at the Beach, Just as it was about to be torn down. He met Gene Turtle, one of the two men who had built the camera. As youngsters, Turtle and Floyd Jennings had discovered Leonardo's plans by accident, thumbing through the Encyclopaedia Britannica for a science project. They showed their completed model to George Whitney, who owned the Cliff House and Playland.

Whitney set up the camera at the Cliff House, but for the first few years it didn't do well because no one knew what it was. Then Whitney got the idea to make it look like a giant camera. Though located at the Cliff House, the camera obscura was a Playland attraction until they tore the place down in 1972. Early in his career, photographer Ansel Adams hung around the camera so much that they quit charging him.

Warren ran into Gene Turtle in the 1970's and ended up doing a fire-eating demonstration at Turtle's wife's birthday party. In 1978, David Warren was perched on a ladder at the Balboa Theater, painting a mural on the side -it's still there, with Marilyn Monroe as centerpiece, but that's another story -- when Turtle approached him and asked whether he'd like to take over the operation of the camera obscura.

"I told him I'd do it as soon as I got down from the ladder," Warren recalls, "and I've been doing it ever since."

Warren proceeded to spend years trying to figure out how to get people in to see what the camera had to offer. "It's a wonderful thing," he says. "You think you should be able to tell people what it is, But it's a paradox. As a salesman, I knew that people would like to know about it, but I found out that you couldn't tell them about it."

He finally hit upon a solution; tell them what it does, not what it is. Slowly, Warren has learned the tricks of wooing them in, has discovered where the magic line lies between those who come in and those who wander off. A few years ago, he added a pair of huge brass arrows, pointing to the entrance. "Before, people would just walk by and start looking at the ocean," he says. "Now, these get their attention."

Once the people come inside, Warren starts spilling his enthusiasm, as the camera obscura chugs quietly around on its motorized axis, panning the surf and the sea lions and the sinking sun. At one point, Warren says, there were three such cameras in San Francisco alone. Now, there are only a handful left in the world. Dave Warren can tell you where each one is and who if running it. That's one of his projects -- forming an organization of all the camera obscura operators in the world, so they can share information.

When the sun sinks low enough in the sky at the end of the day, the sun itself is captured on the rim of Warren's satellitedish screen, a glowing ball of concentrated light. At that point, Warren will hold up a flat, white board, moving it into the field of projection so that he can show people the sunstorms around the edge of the sun.

"We always look for the sunspots," he says. "It's part of our show. We turn off the narration tape and do the sunset show in person. We see the green flash in here about twice a month. It's caused by the spectrum of light being split by the atmosphere. The various colors of light are separated. When green comes along, it flashes, like the northern lights, just as the last rays of light leave." Warren can't help himself; his voice fills with awe. "It lasts only a tenth of a second, but it's very beautiful. Liquid jade. When Jules Verne was writing, he said if there is a green in heaven, it's surely this green."

As people leave, Warren nearly always seems to find some excuse to give them a free pass for another visit. ("Next time, come back while it's still light, so you can see the sea lions" or "Come back and bring a friend.")

The camera never fails to surprise him. "The most unusual thing happened just the other day," says Warren. "We were watching a sunset, and all of a sudden there was a thud. The screen got black. I thought for sure a bird had hit the camera, Later, when I went up to close the hatch, I reached in, and there was a fish. A pelican probably dropped it," he says. "He sure had good aim."

But even on more humdrum days, the object of his livelihood and his affections totally entrances David Warren. Someday, he'd like to create a mobile camera, on that he could haul up to Twin Peaks. "Now that would be something," he says. Meanwhile, if you venture down the stairs that lead to the terrace below the Cliff House, you'll find him, polishing the brass arrows or leaning out through the box office, trying to coax people over that invisible line. When someone gets within earshot, Warren is there, speaking softly. "Have you seen the camera obscura?"

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