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

Station X – an exhibition at MK Gallery

Photo: Rachael Marshall

Milton Keynes on a Saturday afternoon can be incredibly disorientating and disconcerting. So it was with some luck that I happened to stumble into the MK Gallery – or more precisely, the neighbouring Project Space – and the new Station X exhibition.

I’m interested in the history of Bletchley Park – also known as Station X – and the blurb on the door piqued my interest.

Inside I found a collaboration between four artists, each from a different background, which aims to document the ‘visual and aural histories’ of  some of the Park’s derelict  buildings.

I went from the usual Saturday afternoon hubbub – of people coming and going from the theatre and shopping centre, and of the blustery April weather – into a small but self-contained area which instantly began stimulating my senses.

On the walls of the gallery are photographs taken inside the derelict huts by Rachael Marshall – oh, but what’s this? That one isn’t a photograph, it seems to be a physical bit of wall itself.  Maya Ramsay‘s work includes actual pieces of the walls and associated debris, carefully lifted off in one piece and pasted to the wall of the gallery.

All around me I could hear the work of sound artist Caroline Devine – cacophonous sounds of… birds, were they? And then they morphed into reverberating rhythms which I couldn’t quite place. At times they rose to a climax that I found almost disconcerting, before subsiding again to an ambient throb and thrum.

I watched a video piece at this point too, nicely displayed on an old CRT television, and where the video itself has been left to decay a little, as though watching on an old VHS tape or a badly-tuned station. But the picture was occasionally clear enough to see that we were being shown around more of the derelict buildings – a guided tour of urban exploration.

Together with Luke Williams, the four artists have combined to make a small but neatly formed whole which does very well to remove you from the busy urban bustle of Milton Keynes on a Saturday afternoon, placing you firmly inside the dimly lit and derelict buildings of Station X before they are due to be renovated.

The combination of the, at once familiar, yet other worldly, sounds and atmospheric photographs of dust, cobwebs and the odd decaying bird, along with the physical ‘casts’ of the walls themselves all give a very peculiar overall feeling.

I visited Bletchley Park recently, and was awed as much by the beauty of the main buildings as by the technological ingenuity contained within when it was needed most.

But while a visit to the Park itself reveals objects and buildings being restored and brought out on display – as they should be – the Station X exhibition at MK Gallery does a good job of capturing the areas not seen by the public, and the associated sounds and sights which have been left to decay and evolve alone.

With my interests in history and in archiving and preserving lost objects and environments – and particularly in field recordings and photography – I was very grateful to have stumbled on the exhibition.

Station X is on at MK Gallery Project Space (to the right of the theatre entrance courtyard) until 27 May. Entry is free. The Gallery is open every day except Monday.

http://www.mkgallery.org/information/

http://www.mkgallery.org/education/projectspace/station_x/

http://documentingstationx.wordpress.com/

Lisa Took Me – film photography by Lisa Abrams

I made A Thing recently. A website, part of a birthday gift. It’s called Lisa Took Me.

It’s a kind of online portfolio for the film photography of my partner, Lisa.

I’m very proud and impressed with her photographs, and although they are already online via Flickr and Facebook, I felt like I wanted to make a little website to give them their own space online too.

Plus it’s a bit easier to browse than Flickr’s rather archaic interface these days.

It’s a rather basic website, built on Tumblr – both for the content management system in the background, and for the social/sharing functions (read: folks on Tumblr seem to dig film photography).

I picked a nice minimalist theme that I liked the look of, and tweaked it a little to present the images at a decent size, and I added some code that someone had kindly put online, enabling endless scrolling.

It’s a simple website, as I say, but it stands for more than that, and I’m mostly just happy that Lisa’s work now has a home online. You can see photographs she’s taken with a Zenit EM, an Olympus OM10 and, as of last week, a Fujifilm Instax 50s.

Pop over to lisatookme.com to have a look. And click ‘follow’ if you’re a Tumblr user.

Oh, and yes, the titular format of “name verb me” is, of course, borrowed from the wonderful Mr Charles Paget Wade.

Christchurch In Panorama (with thanks to the National Library of NewZealand)

I’ve recently been playing with the National Library of New Zealand‘s excellent Papers Past archive, along with the Digital NZ website. The former is a resource I’ve long been a fan of – even to the point of printing off whole editions of newspapers held in the archive – while the latter is one I’ve known about for a while but never really used.

It turns out that the big search box that greets you on the Digital NZ homepage is basically a Google for digital New Zealand content. Excellent! Not only can you search just one resource at a time, but a whole host of them, refining the search with filters to drill down to find just what you want.

I can’t believe I hadn’t used it before, but it looks like Digital NZ and the NLNZ’s new beta website are both related and are currently under development. They both work great, sure – but they also look beautiful.

It’s not often that you can say that about a library’s public access catalogue!

One of the benefits of an overhauled new system is a system of APIs which allows developers to make cool stuff using the rich sources of data held by the library. One such project is Tim Sherratt’s QueryPicNZ – a simple tool which performs some pretty complex calculations.

It’ll show you on a graph the number of times a particular search term is used in the whole of the Papers Past archive. It’s great for visually analysing the occurrences of a particular event, say, or for easily identifying the unique uses of a particular phrase.

What’s more, the results plotted on the graph are all clickable, and take you directly to the article in question. Seamless.

Anyway, I stumbled on a 130-year-old article in Papers Past after playing with QueryPicNZ.

I’ve had Christchurch on my mind a lot recently. I can’t really work out why; I’ve spent some time there, but not a great deal. I don’t have family there. But the place resonates within me, and the recent upheaval the city is going through has been a source of constant fascination to me. I’m sure I’ll try and distill this peculiar feeling another time, but for now let’s get back to the matter at hand.

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The article in The Star newspaper described a panoramic photograph of Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, taken from the recently-constructed (and now destroyed) Christ Church Cathedral, giving a view of the city in 1881. The article compares the photograph to a particular watercolour which was “a faithful presentment of the Christchurch of 1852.”

The article goes on: “When the tower of the Cathedral had been completed, some of the citizens took advantage of the opportunity to look down, upon the City of the Plains…Beyond the Belts they could see thriving and populous suburbs, and, in every direction, indications that the growth of the community is proceeding with undiminished rigour.”

It describes how Messrs Wheeler and Co. captured “as perfect a panorama as could reasonably be desired.” The panorama affords “much surprise of an agreeable nature, inasmuch as they are not the mere ‘pictures of roofs and chimneys’ which might perhaps have been anticipated.”

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The article closes, praising the panorama as “a most effective and highly creditable example of the status in this Colony of one of the artistic pursuits.”

Praise indeed. But what about that photograph? It sounded great, and I really wanted to see it.

Knowing that I had NLNZ’s excellent tools at my disposal, I performed a few searches, but turned up nothing. (Actually that’s not quite true; I turned up about ten other items of interest which lost me about an hour in researching those in turn!)

Eventually, however, I found a lithograph from 1889 which made reference to the Wheeler photograph. It turned out that it was actually based on the panorama itself, and coloured in. So although I couldn’t find the original Wheeler image, here was a tracing of that image, with added colour!

And the icing on the cake, that comes with so many National Library of New Zealand searches: the image has been scanned and is available to view online instantly. So here it is:

Potts, William, 1859-1947Edmund Wheeler and Son (Firm). Willis, Archibald Dudingston (Firm) :City of Christchurch, N. Z. W. Potts, lith, E. Wheeler & Son, Photo. A. D. Willis lithographer, Wanganui. [1889]. Wakefield, Edward 1845-1924 :New Zealand illustrated. The story of New Zealand and descriptions of its cities and towns by Edward Wakefield; also (by various writers) the natural wonders of New Zealand (past and present). Wanganui. A. D. Willis, 1889.. Ref: PUBL-0019-09. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23041986

It’s a stunning image, I’m sure you’ll agree. The newspaper article wasn’t exaggerating.

But the great news doesn’t end there.

NLNZ haven’t just scanned the above image; no, just like a whole load more images you can find in their archive, they’ve scanned it at eye-searingly high resolution, which you can view and zoom into just by clicking the catalogue link, then clicking ‘See original record’, then ‘View archived copy online’. It’s a slightly fiddly process, but the results are worth it.

Here’s a snippet of the image at full resolution:

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If you ever find an image on the NLNZ catalogue – particularly a photograph from that era – and there’s a link to view it online, do so. The resolution of the scan will be huge, and the quality of those large-format images of the time is insane. I’ve lost hours panning around a street scene from the turn of the century, reading all the shop signs and scrutinising the faces of whoever happened to be in front of the lens the day the photograph was taken.

Related: Check out a recent NLNZ blog post about just this subject: embiggening images.

On the importance of overhead cables in a photograph

From the National Library of New Zealand‘s Flickr account, a rather striking shot of a building in Wellington, taken in 1940:

Photographer: Gordon Burt, Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: 1/2-036769-G

Here is the brand new MLC building at the corner of Lambton Quay and Hunter Street, photographed in 1940. It is from the negatives and prints of Gordon Burt, one of Wellington’s best-known commercial photographers. He was determined to show the building in all its art deco glory. In the real world overhead wires and cables criss-crossed in front of the camera, but on this print Burt has painstakingly retouched them out of existence.

I was interested to read that the ubiquitous overhead tram cables that run throughout downtown Wellington had been edited out of this image – if you click through to the Flickr page and view it larger, you can easily see where this has been done. And while I agree that it does make it easier to focus on the building’s proud frontage, I can’t help but feel slightly queasy about the removal of something so obvious.

But that’s just me; I love lines and silhouettes in photographs – and overhead cables bring a lot of that to an image. Often when I’m out and about, an image can be framed, or divided up, by some previously unnoticed cables. Other times, the unique arrangement of cables against a solid coloured sky can make the image itself. Even the latticed windows of my bedroom make for a beautiful composition against the right cloudscape.

I remember at least one example where I’d taken a photograph of a particularly nice sunset out of the back of my home in Manchester. Criss-crossing the image are the collection of telegraph cables that proliferate in such a densely populated residential area as this. For me, it made an image where the primary feature was swathes of colour a little more dynamic and interesting – the thick black lines against the bright colours of a fiery sunset made for a wonderful contrast.

Or so I thought.

The image ended up on my Manchester Daily Photo blog, and although I can’t remember it exactly, one of the comments left by a site visitor said words to the effect of “Lovely sunset, shame about the wires ruining it though.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. One man’s defining feature in a photograph can be another man’s distraction. And I quite like that.

Oddly enough, my mother was quick to jump in to the comments and defend the presence of the wires, saying she felt that they made the image. That must be where I get it from…

Incidentally, I’d show you the image I mean, but my Flickr account is currently in a somewhat dormant state as my subscription fees have expired for the first time in six years. This means my 12,000-odd photographs are ‘hidden’, with only the latest 200 showing. I will get around to renewing it when I can though, of course.

Donations welcome…!