So I turned my bedroom into a camera obscura

This weekend, when I was supposed to be revising for one of my final exams on Monday, I had an itch that needed scratching.

Since moving into this house nearly three years ago, I’ve often thought that my bedroom would work well as a camera obscura. That’s the name for a closed box with a small hole at the end to let light in. The light from the hole is then projected onto the opposite end. It’s how a camera works, actually, and it works in a ‘box’ from the size of a matchbox pinhole camera, right up to a room or specially-designed domed roof.

I saw this done on a BBC documentary about photography a few years ago, and it’s been at the back of my mind ever since.

The theory is simple: the small hole acts as a lens, and as the light pours through, it is inverted and projected onto the opposite wall. You then get a ‘live’ projection of the world outside on the darkened wall.

And the box/room must be darkened – as close to pitch black as possible. With a small box, you’d use tape. For a box the size of a bedroom, you must black out all sources of light from the windows. I used bin liners, but you can use anything that will do the job.

The best thing about the setup is that the ‘lens’ is really just a hole. Literally just a 10p-sized hole, cut into whatever material you are using to black out the windows. I read some stuff about using an actual lens over this hole – presumably to sharpen the projected image – but it’s pretty clear without.

All the ‘gear’ I used was:

  • a roll of parcel or gaffer tape;
  • a roll of twenty or so bin liners;
  • a pair of scissors.

The bin liners weren’t ideal – they’re quite thin, and I had to double up the layers. Thicker garden waste bags might work, or you can buy a more expensive roll of thicker plastic, for lining ponds, for example.

Anyway. Once I had spent an hour or two carefully covering the windows and plugging any stray sources of light, I turned off my bedroom lights. The room was pitch black once my eyes had adjusted. I went over to the larger window and pinched the middle of the plastic, cutting a small hole. Immediately, light shone in. I looked over to the opposite wall, and was instantly blown away by what I saw…

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Crazy!

Due to Science, the image is, of course, inverted. This takes a minute to get used to, and makes it quite fun to look around at a familiar scene, trying to spot where it has ended up in the room. And because the image is live (for some reason, I half expect it to be static), the movement of the clouds and tree branches is quite magical.

It was a bright, sunny day, and my bedroom faces south east, and this makes for ideal conditions to make a camera obscura. It also helps if your room is painted a light, plain colour, with as few distractions as possible to break up the image. I removed most of the pictures and frames from the wall to provide as large a canvas as possible.

Purpose-built camera obscurae can be found here and there – I visited this one in Bristol about fifteen years ago and was very impressed.

The colours you see in the images above are a bit brighter than they appear in real life. That’s because they are long exposures – between 5 and 20 seconds, I believe, allowing the camera more time to absorb the colours and light.

As well as inverting the image, the hole ‘lens’ actually helps you to understand how camera lenses work. The smaller the hole (or aperture), the less light can get in, but the sharper the image. The larger the hole, the brighter the image, but the fuzzier it is. I experimented a little, holding up a few lenses to the hole – but nothing beat the hole itself.

If I wanted to take the metaphor further, I could’ve used a wall-sized piece of film or photographic paper, and created a print. My room would then have basically been a camera proper. Unfortunately, wall-sized photo paper and film is a little hard to come by, so I was happy to revel in the experience in person – as well as taking some digital snapshots.

An amazing result, and I’m so glad I gave it a go. It might also be the most extravagant and time-consuming form of procrastination I’ve completed to date. That’s something to celebrate. Now, back to revision.

Finally, this short video neatly  helps to show the whole process, should you be curious:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=gvzpu0Q9RTU

17,000 words

17,000 words. Seventeen thousand! That’s what I was sifting through earlier today, in analysing the questionnaire responses I received for my diary project, currently in progress.

I started the project late last year, and the vast majority of the surveys were returned before the end of the year. They lay dormant until just now, as I grappled with coursework and other pressing matters as the Spring term went on.

So it’s only now that I’ve really started to look at what I’ve got. 25 responses, each answering between 15 and 20 questions on why they keep a diary. And what does that add up to? Around 17,000 words.

Crikey.

My main milestone today was getting the answers into a more usable format; thus far, I had a PDF of each questionnaire, answered fully and lovingly by those kind enough to participate. But what I have now is one ‘master’ document, with each question followed by each respondent’s illuminating, candid answer.

It’s really quite a lovely document.

As I’d hoped, diarists make good subjects for questionnaires. And if there’s anything I’ve learnt about diaries and diarists so far, it’s this:

If you ask people who enjoy writing about themselves to write about themselves, you should expect a lot of words back.

And hurrah for that. It’s not just a lovely thing for me to read, it’s proving to be incredibly useful primary data for my final year research project. I’ve made some graphs and begun highlighting passages ripe for quoting in the report itself.

The project’s deadline is two weeks tomorrow, so if you’ll excuse me, I have a little work to do…

On the subject of the cyberflâneur

I was tickled, earlier this week, to read an interesting article on the New York Times website about the supposed death of the “cyberflâneur”. Actually, I was mostly thrilled to be reading an article about the subject of the cyberflâneur in general.

It concerns the idea – in parallel with the flâneur of old – of the web surfer jumping from site to site, checking out this and that, just for the sake of curiosity. It’s not a concept alien to most web users, even if the term itself is used less frequently.

Many’s the time I’ve found myself wasting hours, having had my interest piqued by something as innocent as a photograph or a paragraph of text. I’ll end up reading all about the subject on Wikipedia (almost always my starting point), before looking for related images, maps or related media.

Often, I’ll even find myself consulting primary resources such as newspaper archives or ebooks as a result of a particularly interest concept.

Very occasionally, such an information expedition can lead to a life-long obsession.

So, as much as I enjoyed the well-written NY Times article mentioned above, I was somewhat baffled at the assertion that the cyberflâneur, that curiosity-fuelled web-surfer I declare myself to be, are “few and far between.”

Really? Are we really a dying breed?

Anyway, the article, and the concept of flânerie in general, has occupied my mind for the past few days, and I’d been meaning to write this blog post to highlight an article I found interesting, but one which I felt was deeply flawed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that it’s not just me that’s had this notion.

Over at The Atlantic, a hastily-written but useful piece has been posted, expressing feelings similar to my own. The author argues, quite rightly, that the cyberflâneur lurks – and, indeed, thrives – on Tumblr, Flickr or Pinterest. He (or she) jumps from obscure maps to interesting images, constantly in search of some new thing to be fascinated by.

Sure, as the NY Times piece affirms, we use the web in a different way these days; jumping to particular destinations to perform particular tasks. And, as it says, the use of apps has leapfrogged browsing to websites, allowing us to do very specific things without getting caught up on the way.

But these specific and particular tasks, I’d argue, are the equivalent of the original flâneur’s banks, post offices, or similar.

Much as we may find ourselves connecting directly to the likes of Gmail or Facebook for certain needs, the flâneur would make a beeline to the bank if he deemed it necessary. And just as the flâneur would then take an idle stroll through arcades of shops selling things he could never dream of owning, so too does the cyberflâneur spend a ‘wasted’ half an hour drooling over things they wish they could afford, or places they would much rather be.

The concept of flânerie is one I find very interesting, and I would consider myself to be something of that kind. I’d say I’m probably more just a daydreamer, and a curious, nerdy one at that, but flânerie – cyber or not – is as romantic title to give it as any other.

Although Evgeny Morozov’s New York Times piece may be flawed in its eulogising of the cyberflâneur, it’s still a cracking read, and will hopefully set off a train of thought in your mind too. He’s clearly a learned man who has a way with words, and he paints a nice picture of the original flâneur.

John Hendel’s Atlantic piece is rather more slapdash – with less panache, and some rather oddball comparisons – but it’s still worth a read as a rebuttal to Morozov’s argument.

Oh, and I couldn’t resist it: reports of the death of the cyberflâneur are, indeed, greatly exaggerated…

A tour of Chetham’s library

The other day, I and some folks from CILIP North West were treated to a tour of Chetham’s library, situated between Urbis and Manchester Cathedral. I must admit I didn’t know a great deal about Chetham’s beforehand, other than that it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and some other little titbits that can be summarised as it being a very old, very beautiful library.

Being a fan of such things, I jumped at the chance, even leaving a riveting lecture on organisational culture early. My lecturer decided to spend five minutes telling an anecdote about a previous job and I just happened to have to leave part way through her story. Satisfying.

The stroll I took through the city to get to the library was very enjoyable in its own right; Manchester was cold and crisp, with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows and throwing a golden hue onto whichever surfaces were tall enough to catch it. The Christmas Markets had opened that day in and around Albert Square, and it was lovely to have a quick look as I went past.

 

It reminded me that Manchester is a wonderful city at this time of year. Sure, it gets as busy and suffocating as any shopping city in the run-up to Christmas, but everything else is just very enjoyable.

I got to the library just in time to say hello, and to confirm if I could take photographs inside.

 

The tour was very entertaining and enjoyable. Our guide struck a nice balance between being informative and amusing, and never veered into boring territory. He seemed proud of the collections, and had many quips and stories pertaining to old traditions, the library’s place alongside the School of Music, and Manchester in general – as well as his mild obsession with books dealing with death.

The place oozes history. You can’t walk down a hallway or glance at shelving or sit on a chair without feeling its many centuries of age. So many of the fixtures and fittings are either original or merely very old. Indeed, very little of the library is ‘modern’, and the whole place has a very satisfying consistency in terms of decor and style. We were told, in fact, that a lot of the furniture spans many hundreds of years in styles, but it still all looks appropriate.

 

We were told many interesting things about the ‘mechanics’ of the place: for example that the books are mostly sorted in size order for reasons of practicality. One librarian attempted to get the collections sorted in Dewey order, but for a library of this kind, such an effort is futile.

 

The library is very dark inside. Old lead-lighted and stained glass windows offer an eery, pleasing light – but at levels far below that necessary for reading and writing. Indeed, even with the aid of electric light, it wasn’t hard to imagine visiting the library a century or more ago – nor to understand how in the winter months all those years ago, the library would usually close around 2pm.

 

Of interest to many was the staggering list of names of its users through the past. Karl Marx was a particular highlight, with his favourite location being easily identifiable, and that ever-present connection with the past making it so believable and alive.

A personal highlight was talk of the Leech collection, a vast archive of diaries, scrapbooks and photographs spanning a couple of hundred years of one family. There is a staggering amount of material held on this family, and it’s a wonderful resource. With my personal university project on how and why we keep diaries, I was especially fascinated to hear more about it.

It was a lovely tour and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to visit the place. It turns out you can just pop in any time, but it was especially good to be given a guided tour by someone so knowledgable and enthusiastic.

For more information on visiting Chetham’s library (and a lot more), head over to their website: http://www.chethams.org.uk/visiting.html

You can see some more of the photographs I took on my tour in this Flickr photoset.

Death and the Diary: Analysis of Philippe Lejeune’s ‘How Do Diaries End?’

This paper is an analysis of Philippe Lejeune’s paper, How Do Diaries End?, produced as a result of preparation for a 1997 exhibition entitled A Diary Of One’s Own at the Lyon Public Library.

Lejeune’s paper was published in Biography, vol. 24, issue 1, Winter 2001, and translated into English by Victoria Lodewick.

The paper was originally published in Geneses du Je: Manuscrits et autobiographie, sous la direction de Philippe Lejeune et Catherin Viollet. Paris: CNRS Edinions, 2000, pp209-238.


Philippe Lejeune defines the life of a diary as having different phases – or, more simply, like a story – as having a ‘beginning’, a ‘middle’ and an ‘end’. He identifies the paradox of diaries almost always having a well-defined beginning, having by their very nature a middle, but often lacking a well-rounded end. “It is rare to begin one without saying so,” writes Lejeune, before wondering whether “similar rituals existed for ending a diary.”

Often, he writes, the end of the diary is not written by the diary’s author, and that the author will often not know that this page “would be the last.” Since such de facto endings to diaries can be ruled out as unintended, Lejeune turns his search to other reasons for diaries coming to an end.

He identifies four distinct endings as:

  • A voluntary and explicit stop (to a journal that has not been destroyed)
  • The destruction of a diary
  • A rereading (perhaps with subsequent annotation or indexing)
  • Publication

Lejeune explains that, as far as French texts on the diary go, this problem of an ending is ignored. ‘How-to’ manuals on the writing of a diary stop short of instructing a diarist on how to end a diary – “it would be like writing a treatise on suicide,” says Lejeune. The subject of suicide – and more broadly, of death – is ever-present in his piece.

For simplicity, journals with predetermined endings are ignored here – travel journals, or those recording temporary periods such as a project or a pregnancy, are all defined by the limited length of the events themselves. They will come to an end when the event itself does; the author will live on.

Lejeune explains that the currency and continuity of writing a ‘life-long’ or ‘all-purpose’ diary is a sort of renewal of life expectancy – in writing today’s entry, tomorrow’s will surely follow. “All journal writing assumes the intention to write at least one more time,” he explains. “The diarist is protected from death by the idea that the diary will continue.”

Lejeune describes this paradox as entering into “a phantasmagoric space where writing runs into death,” which we can understand as a sort of Schrödinger’s Cat scenario whereby the diarist is neither alive nor dead – only the diary itself which is constant.

Any sort of closure, he explains, can come not just from the very definite ending, but also from the limitations of the medium itself. Finishing a page, or a whole notebook, can give the author cause to review what has filled the preceding space.

Although Lejeune concentrates on the paper journal (or, at least, makes no distinction between paper and online journals), he asserts that the addition of loose pages – or the infinite space of a computer file – can help ease this “obligation of filling in and the need to stop.”

Indeed, continuity is often preferred, and he cites the diary of a young girl who, upon completion of one notebook, specifically chooses to continue her journal in a new, identical notebook, “to give the impression of forever starting over.”

Lejeune makes the important distinction, too, between autobiography and diary. “Autobiography,” he argues, “is virtually finished as soon as it begins… All autobiography is finishable.” The diary, conversely, is “unfinishable”. Again, here Lejeune asserts that there is always a “time lived beyond the writing.”

Lejeune admits that his ideal subject, the ‘all-purpose’, ‘life-long’ journal is just one of the varieties of diaries – “and not the most common one.” “People who remain faithful unto death to one and the same diary are rare.”

He describes the more common, fragmented and short-lived, journals as “passing fancies”. He explains “there are periods with a diary and periods without.” This discontinuity is inherent in the diary form, he says, mirroring the ebb and flow of life’s crises.

Lejeune identifies two distinct types of diarist:

  • Those who write habitually, every day, and “who suffer when they skip a day”, catching up when they feel they are behind
  • Those who write “more or less regularly”, whenever they feel the need

In the latter, Lejeune asks whether a large gap in entries could be seen as an ‘ending’? He thinks not, as the act of adding a new entry will once again restore the continuity. The diary is not finished – it is merely ‘on hold.’

On the other hand, the longer a journal is left ignored, the more ‘finished’ it may become – to the point that the author may realize that if the need to keep a diary has finished, thus the diary itself must end.

Lejeune cites a diarist who realizes, a month after his wife’s death, that if he no longer feels the need to write in his diary at such a pivotal moment of his life, it “surely proves that this diary is finished, that it no longer responds to my needs.”

Lejeune concludes by defining four distinct functions of the diary – albeit conceding that “there are others, and a real diary fulfills several functions at once.”

The four functions he defines are as follows:

  • To express oneself – divided into two further functions: to release, and to communicate
  • To reflect
  • To freeze time
  • To take pleasure in writing

Writing diaries as a form of release of life’s emotions is seen as a common method of “purifying and cleansing yourself.”

This purification can come in the form of the clarity gained from subsequent rereading, or from the more drastic function of systematic destruction of the diaries themselves – as a way of purging the feelings no longer deemed necessary. Lejeune identifies this as “a sort of spring-cleaning, after which you set out again, lighter.”

Communication is another common diary function, so often identified by the ‘dear diary’ opening to entries (Lejeune cites Anne Frank’s classic “Dear Kitty” here). Thoughts and events are ‘told’ to a diary as opposed to a person or persons. The end to this type of diary can come “simply because this problem has been resolved: you meet a person with whom you can talk or to whom you can write.”

Lejeune further explains how a transition period may be identified in this scenario, whereby a journal will be ‘told’ about the new person – or, conversely, where the new person is introduced to the diary that they will come, in time, to ‘replace’.

Reflection is a similar function to communication and release, allowing the author to ‘quarantine’ events of their life and reflect upon them in a controlled way. Lejeune describes this function as being more important in diaries that are kept a long time. While ‘psychoanalysis’ of one’s life can seem “interminable,” “it is also said you can do it in ‘pieces’.”

Freezing time, Lejeune explains, is building memories and archives of “lived experience” out of the paper entries – “to prevent forgetting,” even “giving life the consistency and continuity it lacks.” The author is seen as a collector, with the items as ‘pieces’ of the life as it is lived. Lejeune says, “ideally,” that the end of such a diary will coincide with the death of its author. He says that stopping the frequent updates of such a diary would be “failure,” and that destruction of it would be “a total failure.”

Lejeune’s final function – to take pleasure in writing – is simple: “one also writes because it is… pleasant.” For the writer, it can be satisfactory to practice writing, drawing inspiration from the events of one’s life. Lejeune argues, however, that the flow of energy can be diverted from the keeping of a diary to other forms of writing, although he concedes that where memory is not the primary function of the diary, this diversion of efforts away from diary-writing is less problematic.

Lejeune then illustrates a few examples of how diaries might end – from interest waning, to the ‘death’ of a “virtual addressee”, to the diary being discovered by an uninvited reader. He also identifies the peculiarity of wishing to ‘wrap up’ a diary as a body of work, almost with a punchline. This is more commonly found, he says, where “the diarist carefully polishes the last line of an entry.”

In closing, Lejeune discusses diaries that come to their end toward the end of the lives of their author. He sees two distinct patterns here – perseverance and resignation – and illustrates them with examples.

Perseverance is seen here as holding your chin up, continuing to prevail – or even writing of your struggle in private, to “spare others” as they support you. A connection is made between writing and living – “while I’m writing, I survive.” Lejeune goes as far as to suggest that, “perhaps a diary sometimes helps you to ‘die well,’ the way religion used to do.”

Resignation, on the other hand, is a more somber side. “You hang your head, you put down your pen.” Lejeune states that although the diary can – and will – end with the death of its author, there is a contradiction here, as the diary will live on, long after its author’s death. “Literary survival is no illusion,” he says. “You will still die, but your diary will not.”

Lejeune talks about diarists who document the bitter end in as much detail as they can – mostly from the perspective of suicide – including the poet Rabearivelo, “who kept a minute-by-minute account of his suicide in his journal, trying to write until the last second.”

Conversely, he also mentions diarists who make no mention of their oncoming death, no matter how clearly it was perceived (or planned), citing Virginia Woolf as one example.

Lejeune has done a magnificent job of detailing the many ways that a diary can end, dealing with some very sensitive issues that go to the very heart of life, happiness and, ultimately, death.

Indeed, as he concludes, “everything comes to an end, even this presentation,” before departing with a cheery, “I hope it has not darkened your morning.”