A snapshot of camera-obscura works on display at the St. Louis Art Museum

In a barely remembered TV movie-of-the-week crime drama, a hostage is forced to enter the dark, enclosed trailer of a truck to be driven to the bad guy's hideout. Frightened at first, she looks around and has a MacGyver moment: Noticing a tiny beam of sunlight shining through a small hole in the side of the truck, our brave captive realizes that the light is projecting an inverted image of the passing streets onto one of the inner walls of the trailer. She can't escape just yet, but she can at least see where she is being taken. This is the wonder of the camera obscura, a camera big enough to walk inside.

Da Vinci marveled at the apparent magic of the camera obscura, and visitors to San Francisco's Pacific beach at Seal Rock have enjoyed their own shack-sized camera obscura for more than 50 years. This mysterious shed, perched high on the roof of a larger structure that, in turn, was built on a cliff, focuses sharply lit beach scenes onto a wide concave surface mounted parallel to the floor. Children enter the dark, quiet room and see the huge bowl glowing with live images from outdoors and say "Whoa!" Adults are wowed, too.

Science and art commingle when the St. Louis Art Museum exhibits the work of Cuban-born photographer Abelardo Morell, starting this Saturday. He makes a grouping of his photos by positioning a specialized camera on a tripod within a camera obscura of his own construction. He first prepares a room by sealing off all light sources with dark plastic, save for one three-eighths-inch opening that becomes his aperture. The image of the outdoors, inverted, shines on the walls, just like the path of light into a camera or through the human eye onto the retina. He leaves the shutter of the smaller camera-within-the-camera obscura open for anywhere from eight hours to two days to capture a prolonged exposure.

The exhibit also features fresh views of familiar domestic objects, spilled water, books, children at play and other quotidian sights, captured with more standard equipment. These photos are said to offer a quiet transcendence of the everyday that is less dramatic than the camera-obscura work but move with a meditative simplicity of their own.

The St. Louis Art Museum displays Abelardo Morell and the Camera Eye, including camera-obscura photographs, in Gallery 313, Saturday, Feb. 1-April 16. Call 721-0072 for more information.

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