Tuesday, June 17, 2008

back to basics

I talked to a friend at the weekend who works with a lot of alternative photographic processes and equipment. He has an eclectic array of different film and digital cameras and makes some beautiful images. This time he walked in with a large box under his arm. Proudly he showed off the prints he'd been making with this several foot square cardboard pinhole camera that he'd made. It was fascinating. The negatives were about 2 foot by 3 foot, made directly on photographic paper, through a small brass pinhole on the side of the box. He used a magnetic shutter (well, a thin fridge magnet) to make the box work and sealed it up at home prior to going out and shooting his one, large frame. The camera is the big green box in the shot below. He estimated that the pinhole was probably about an f256 aperture and the image was sharp right across the plane. There was a concave film holder at the back of the box (a flexed piece of card). The simplicity and elegance of the entire camera fascinates me, compared to the technical and electronic marvels that many of us use. The shot at the top of this post is another of his images, this time taken with a pinhole camera made from a tin can. It isn't perfect, but there is a charm and character to the image that is absent from a lot of the technically perfect but less than exciting digital imagery that you can find around. More than that, there is a magic to it - a tin can and some light sensitive paper and a bit of chemistry and you end up with an image. It reminded me of the room-sized camera obscura that is shown in one of the genius of photography episodes. A team rent a hotel room in Rome, across from a famous church. They black out the windows, install a small aperture as the only place that light can enter the room, then watch and wait until their eyes adjust and a perfect, beautiful, inverted and reversed image of the church across the street appears on the opposite wall. Magical. I've enjoyed similar effects from small holes in the window blinds in my bedroom, watching the early morning sun dance small images of the trees in the garden across the wall. We also got to talking about various larger sized camera obscura and one image stood out as particularly whimsical. He mentioned someone who sensitises paper across the entire back side of a large pin-hole camera then is actually inside the box during the exposure, dodging and burning the image as it is formed, from inside the camera. Using their whole body to block and shape the light hitting the paper. It just seems such a wonderfully organic way to interact with the print that I'm fascinated. Perhaps even more so because I've never even experienced the basic process of printing a black and white image in a darkroom - something I want to try, before it all disappears.


John M. Setzler, Jr. said...

I have contemplated building a pinhole camera many times, and never followed through with it. I actually purchased a polaroid film holder about two years ago with the intent of making a polaroid pinhole camera...

I have never had any formal training in processing film either, but I have been exposed to it plenty. I have learned a lot more about it in my radiography program at school lately as well, so I have an intimate understanding of how film is constructed and the physics and chemistry involved in forming the latent image and then processing it. I think building a pinhole camera and exposing photographic paper would push me to learn the print developing process, which is very similar to the film developing process.

It would not be difficult to calculate the exact aperture and focal length of a pinhole camera design, and it would be fun to calculate exposures times as well.

One of the decisions I have been unable to resolve in a pinhole camera design is whether or not to use photographic paper or transparency film. A 4x5 transparency would be easier to digitize and print... There are just a lot of choices to think about :)

tsheets said...

Very cool! I can't imagine using yourself as a burn tool! That would be a lot of fun. Love the top image of the post, BTW!

Brian Bastinelli said...

How cool Gordon...

I got my start in 9th grade 'Intro to Photography' constructing a pinhole camera out of an old oatmeal container.

We used a small piece of brass stuck a pin through it, sanded it down and held it in place with a dark duct tape.

Then we took strips of thick cardboard and made a film holder on the back wall of the camera.

The hole was covered with another large piece of duct tape and was removed to make the exposure.

It was so much fun!