Within the darkness of the obscura, light reached in to every corner.
The twentieth celebration of Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day fell on 26th April 2020. Pinholers and would-be pinholers around the world are invited to participate in pinhole photography on the last Sunday of April each year and to upload a single image made on the day to the WPPD website for display in that year’s gallery Exhibition.
I have participated in WPPD for several years and this year was to be no exception. For some weeks I have been thinking of subject matter and what ‘equipment’ I might use or make with which to capture an image. My planning actually began six months prior to the day with the placement of four coffee-can solargraph pinhole cameras. The intention was to have at least two of these exposing for the full six months ending on 26th April. One was removed from it’s post, never to be seen again, a second was opened after three months to check that all was in order, leaving two to run the full course.
Of course, six months ago coronavirus was not known. There was no pandemic and no lockdown restriction on movement. The two remaining pincams were placed on each of my two daughters’ homes. With a few weeks to go I realised that I might need to rely on my daughters closing the shutters on my behalf and to store the pincams until they could be retrieved and the images within scanned. I needed a Plan B.
Initially Plan B was to prepare pincams to use while out for my permitted exercise and my previous blog post shows some images made on a trial run. However as WPPD drew nearer I wanted more to make an image that somehow reflected on the strange times of the pandemic lockdown. I decided to make a room into an obscura into which a view of the outside world would be projected and in which I could sit in solitude and in silence, watching around me an inverted mirror image of a world from which I was isolated.
The obscura idea developed. I could attempt to make a long exposure photograph of the image within or I could attempt to set up photographic paper on which to record the image. In the UK social distancing measures required that individuals remain a minimum of two metres apart. I decided to set up my paper two metres from the pinhole. A 2mm hole drilled in aluminium reclaimed from a beer can was placed in the blackout material covering the window. I looked out an old projection screen that would assist in framing my image and to act as a support for an array of 10″x8″ sheets of Ilford MGRC paper – the largest I had to hand. The paper array would have to be assembled by safelight once the room/obscura was closed and packed away in a like manner after exposure and before I could emerge from the room. I would be alone for some time.
The image was made not long after sunrise. I had to guess at an exposure and allowed 40 minutes. Allowing for setting up, taking down and just sitting in the quiet of the obscura soaking up the experience, I was in the world of the outside within for about 90 minutes. I watched and listened to birds flying upside down in front of me, the occasional vehicle or pedestrian passing the wrong way, the trees sweeping the sky in the easterly breeze that seemed to be coming from the west. I thought of those whose lives at this time are topsy-turvy, confused and worse, confined to a narrow, unchanging view of a world from which they have been isolated.
But the feeling was not a negative one. In my head I had imagined sitting alone in the dark but in fact I found myself surrounded by light. From a hole just two millimetres in diameter, light and with it the life of the outside world seemed to permeate every nook and cranny of the room. There was light and the light was good.
With just one week until Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day 2020, I’ve been dusting down old and creating new pincams.
WPPD2020 is almost upon us! This is its twentieth year and will be celebrated across the globe in a variety of coronavirus lockdown conditions.
Six months ago I set up solargraph pinhole cameras at four locations. One was vandalised about five weeks in and I took down another after three months to check that an image was being recorded as I would expect. The remaining two should each have a 6-month record of the sun’s path as seen from each of my daughters’ homes. Lockdown means I may not be able to retrieve the cameras and will have to rely on my daughters closing the shutters for me.
With thoughts of possibly not having one of my planned images to upload to the WPPD2020 website gallery, I’ve been thinking of alternative pincams to use on the day and testing out a few ideas.
Just before Christmas 2017 I received the gift of a vintage VistaScreen 3-D viewer and over that holiday period I made a stereo pinhole camera. Here it is with some of the prints I’ve made from the Ilford MGRC paper negs I exposed over the past couple of days: (To see the 3-D effect, stare at each dual image in turn and slowly cross your eyes to create a virtual third image in the middle)
Another possibility might be to take my Food-Caddy Bincam pincam for a spin. Here it is with an image made on Harman Direct Positive Paper while cycling with the camera mounted on the rear rack of my bike:
Or I could go back to one of the first pincams I ever made. This foamcore box-within-a-box pincam was made for WPPD2014 and is one of my favourites. I gave it a go last week with some Harman Direct Positive Paper:
Lockdown hasn’t been easy. With regular liquid refreshment running low and visits to the shops even for essentials, limited, I’ve been resorting to retirement gifts stored away for a rainy day. The Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old Malt was much enjoyed in relieving it’s packaging for alternative use as an anamorphic cylindrical pincam. This image was also on Harman Direct Positive Paper:
I am quite fortunate in living within very easy reach from home of woodland and open space which can be enjoyed in relative solitude. Lockdown restrictions here allow for leaving home each day for one form of exercise, maintaining social distancing. Whether going for a walk or a cycle ride it is quite possible to pack one or two pinhole cameras for when I pause for a rest!
Pinhole images through a vortoscope: Is it a first?
Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD) is celebrated annually on the last Sunday of April. For several years I’ve joined my friends in the Edinburgh Lo-Fi Photography Group for a pinhole photowalk and trying each year to do ‘something different’ with a light-tight space, some form of light-sensitive media and a very, very, small hole.
While the ultimate goal in celebrating the Day is to produce a single image that will be uploaded to the WPPD website, it is also a fun, social occasion with friends, a sharing of ideas, coffee, an interesting location, cake, pincam comparisons and inevitably food and drink in a pub or restaurant afterwards. To make the day interesting photographically I usually prepare several pincams and this year I carried three. My intention was to make one pre-planned image for WPPD19 and to simply have fun with the others to see how they turned out.
First was the ‘Not Just Any Belgian Collection Biscuit Tin’ pincam, then came the ‘All Butter Scottish Shortbread Collection Penta-pinhole’ pincam and finally, the ‘Olympus OM1n Vortoscopic Bodycap Pinhole’ pincam. Each will be explained below in some detail. (This will be a long blog post)!
The Not Just Any Belgian Collection Biscuit Tin pincam
I last used this 90mm deep biscuit tin which holds a sheet of 10″x8″ paper, a few months ago while experimenting with SE1 emulsion on tracing paper. The success of that experiment was iffy at best but it did confirm the accuracy of the f/360 pinhole apertures (it has three to choose from) and the angles of view achievable. It seemed a safe bet to put it to use for WPPD19 loaded with a sheet of Harman Direct Positive Paper which would subsequently be developed in fresh Ilford Multigrade.
Our walk passed a large concrete arrow set in the grass. Apparently the arrow had served some purpose to the RAF during the second world war. It seemed an ideal subject for pinhole imagery. I set up the pincam on a high tripod, aiming downward and used the lower landscape pinhole so as to raise the horizon and include the shadow of the pincam in the image.
The All Butter Scottish Shortbread Collection Penta-pinhole pincam
Like the Belgian Biscuit tin, this pincam had been last used in my experiments with emulsion on tracing paper. It is much shallower at only 55mm and although very wide, the angle of view of each pinhole is insufficient to cover the 10″x8″ paper that fits inside the tin. By using multiple apertures light would be projected by the peripheral ones into the areas of the paper unexposed by the central one. This would also create the interesting idea of overlapping image planes.
The challenge would be to produce five near identical pinhole apertures. This would ensure evenly balanced exposures in the periphery while the central area would receive light from all five apertures. From experiments with three holes I reckoned I could meter the subject, divide by five and deduct that well-known pinhole unit of measure: the ‘bit’. I marked out and drilled holes in the tin lid. The f/160 pinhole apertures were created by pushing a dress-making pin part-way through squares of thin aluminium foil which were then measured for accuracy and consistency before attachement to the inside of the tin. Measurement was made by scanning each pinhole at 9600dpi, measuring onscreen at full size and comparing against the known measurement of a steel rule scanned and viewed at the same resolution and size.
The twist I wanted to put on the image made with this camera was based on the fact that the meeting point to start our walk was to be outside a theatre. Now the universal symbol for the theatrical arts is a mask and with the potential for the overlapping image produced by this pincam to ‘mask’ the subject, I thought I would take it a little further and make a mask for a member of our group to wear while posing for my WPPD19 image!
Unfortunately the person I had in mind (whose ‘big’ wild hair would have set off the mask very well) was unable to attend the meetup so I ended up wearing it myself and taking a selfie! I quite underestimated just how close the pincam to subject distance would need to be: this was taken at about 30cm – it really needed to be half that or even closer!
The Olympus OM1n Vortoscopic Bodycap Pinhole pincam
It was while browsing my local craft store for mask materials that I spotted some 5cm square mirrors. Some years ago I had been introduced to vortographs, an interesting technique that once tried quickly found its way to the dark recesses of my memory. Something clicked and I decided it would be fun to make a vortoscope through which to make pinhole images. (A good starting point to learn about vortoscopism is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_Langdon_Coburn)
A vortoscope is a gadget that produces kaleidoscope-like images. It is made up of three (I guess it could be more) mirrors formed into a tube-like construction of triangular section which is placed over a lens (or in my case, over a pinhole aperture). The resulting image consists of a central direct section surrounded by peripheral reflections. The ‘diameter’ and length of the vortoscope affects the size and clarity of each of these sections and the abstraction of the image.
I made mine from a pack of 5cm square mirrors which I cut to size with a glass-cutter, a toilet roll core, copious amounts of hot-melt glue and some sticky-back foam. The bodycap has long been adapted for pinhole but to be sure I did re-make the pinhole aperture to the optimum 0.29mm for the 49mm projection distance when mounted on my old Olympus OM1n camera.
I was pretty pleased with the results. The camera was loaded with Kentmere 400 film from a bulk roll and subsequently developed in Ilfosol 3. I make no apology for showing all of the images here, warts and all, because I think they are quite cool! These have been scanned and slight adjustments made in Afinity Photo for exposure and levels. Most of the images were between half and one and a half stops underexposed which was probably down to my poor metering!
WPPD19: which image to submit?
At the time of writing, I have not yet decided which of all the pinhole images made on the day I should submit as my WPPD19 image. I’m open to suggestions.
Pinhole day this year was the first in a long time that I can remember having good, almost too good, weather for pinhole photography. It was unusual for me to come home with nothing I could call a failure!
The best thing about the day? Time spent with friends, sharing our enjoyment of simple image-making pleasures.
A final anecdote
We came across many bird watchers, apparently drawn to reports of two rare species of duck having been spotted along the coast where we were walking. Like us, each of them carried the tools of their hobby: while ours were tin cans and changing bags, theirs were tripods, spotting scopes and big digital cameras with huge long lenses surely capable of resolving the tail-feather detail of sparrows in flight at 1000 metres!
One of them was passing me when he spotted the Olympus round my neck: “Oh! What sort of lens is that? I’ve not seen one of these before.” he asked. Willing to be engaged in a spot of photographic gear talk I removed said ‘lens’ from the camera to show the pinhole end of the device. “It’s not a lens, it’s a vortoscopic bodycap pinhole.” I replied.
Oh dear! The clues were written all over his face. This conversation was going nowhere. It was quite clearly considered that I was some wacko with a screw loose! I need to invest time in the study of ornithology.
A catch-up on the year’s photographic endeavours, somewhat disrupted by retirement.
My last blog was posted in March! Here’s what’s been going on: (Warning – It’s a long one!)
The opportunity to retire came my way at the beginning of the year and having decided to accept it, the rest of the year has been taken up with preparation, the deed itself and now readjusting to the life of a retiree.
For the past twenty one years my sister and I have run a small optical practice in a quiet seaside town. The subject of our inevitable retirement and how we might bow out had been discussed off and on and we had a range of possible outcomes in mind. These ranged from one day having to shut the door and walk away, through the more likely scenario of being made a derisory offer with strings attached by one of the big groups, to the dream of someone walking in the door with an offer to buy and to pay the price we asked.
As it happens, dreams do come true! Somebody wanting to expand their existing single practice got to hear of our thoughts and in January I took a phone call that set the rest of the year in motion! A date for transfer of the business was set – 31st August. At first it seemed that we had plenty time to prepare but even by April it was already clear that time was running short! Indeed looking back, from then until the moment we handed over the keys was an uphill race against time, lawyers, surveyors and accountants. We were racing up a hill like lemmings and the cliff edge was 31st August when we would throw ourselves into the abyss of retirement.
Retirement too has been unexpected, at least so far. I can only describe it as a very weird time: After a couple of weeks I was ready to go back to work, as one would after a holiday, but I wasn’t on holiday. Six weeks into retirement I was still waking up at 5am to start my working day. By November I was feeling adjusted to some semblance of a new Monday to Friday routine but somehow I lost track of weekends. It was as if Saturday and Sunday didn’t exist! Even now at the end of December I can’t say I’ve yet settled fully into this new lifestyle.
The process has played havoc with the pursuit of my hobby but there have been occasions when I’ve been able to grab a camera for a brief fix of image making. Unfortunately I’ve had no time to indulge myself in the process of immersion in any one train of creative thought. Experiments haven’t been followed through, prints haven’t been made and consistency has gone out the window.
So here’s what I’ve been up to when not preparing for or adjusting to retirement.
I managed a couple of outings on my bike with the Intrepid and of course I couldn’t miss Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day!
My other hobby is cycling. Somehow I found cycling an easier way to escape than photography. However, I’d acquired an e-bike with the intention of setting it up to do the donkey work of lugging my camera gear around!
Another cycle ride, this time to Queensferry to find images of the bridges across the Forth.
The present incumbent of the Office of President of the United States of America made a visit to the UK and spent a couple of days playing golf at one of his golf courses in Scotland. Donald Trump wasn’t particularly welcomed here. The media focussed on attempts by protestors to disrupt his golf but made little of several city-centre stopping demonstrations. I took my Vivitar v3800n SLR out, loaded with Kentmere 400 to record the mega-demo through the centre of Edinburgh, thoroughly enjoying a type of documentary photography I haven’t done for years!
My artist friend Oonagh has been mentioned in previous posts. We’d intended for months to meet up for Coffee, Cake and Cameras and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity we had to do so in Anstruther at the beginning of August. I truly value any time spent in the company of creative people and Oonagh is no exception. We had a wonderful day each exploring in our own way, she with an underwater camera and a stereo pincam, and me with a Brownie 127 and Vest Pocket Kodak both loaded with cross process colour film and an experimental multi-coffee tin pincam.
Sadly my multi-coffee tin pincam experiment was a failure or perhaps it just worked differently from what I expected, so nothing to show from it. However, Oonagh brought me a present: A set of three 35mm film canister pincams, each with a magnet set in the lid to aid secure mounting on a metallic surface (I later found a tin lid that could be held in the QR mount of my tripod – perfect!)
I met up with a group of friends to visit the SS Explorer at Leith Docks. Built as a research ship, it is one of the last surviving steam powered side trawlers still afloat and is being restored by a group of dedicated volunteers. We were privileged to have the opportunity to go on board and take photographs. I took Oonagh’s filmcan pincams loaded for paper negatives and my Vivitar v3800n loaded with Kentmere 400.
Just one photo outing this month, to capture some autumn colour with the Intrepid 4×5 on FP4+ black and white film 😉
Just one image this month, taken while out on an early morning cycle with one of Oonagh’s filmcan pincams.
I’m beginning to put some thoughts together for photographic projects but my output so far kind of emphasises their experimental nature! I have but two paper negatives to show for my efforts so far but I’m working on it. This image was made in a biscuit tin pincam on 90gsm acid-free tracing paper coated with SE1 Emulsion. There’s a lot of perfecting to be done regarding my coating method and estimating exposures but my goal is to obtain a contact printable paper negative. That should be worth a few future blog posts!
My new life as a retiree is beginning to take shape and there is light ahead even if the tunnel is longer than I had expected.
I’ve taken up the noble retirement pursuit of Volunteering, in my case at the West Lothian Bike Library where I’m getting proper training as a bike mechanic and also as a led-ride leader. WLBL aims to make cycling available to all and has a wide range of adaptive bikes and trikes that are available to those with support needs. It also accepts donations of old bikes which are assessed and refurbished either for sale or for donation in response to requests from Social Services. A couple of days a week gives some structure, routine and purpose to my time in worthwhile activity.
There has been a gradual realisation that I can take an actual holiday. Or for that matter, as many or as much holidays as I can fit in! I can go day trips any day of the week. On my bike I’m restricted to a fairly limited area unless I take the bike somewhere on a train and as my wife doesn’t cycle, too many bike trips tends to selfishness. Of course, retirement gives us the time to spend together that was denied us when I was working. We had a chat, or two, or three about it and took a liking to the idea of a campervan …
… So after much internet browsing, asking about and looking around we’ve put down a deposit. Sometime soon we should be hitting the road in search of places of interest and potential campsites. The prospect beckons of being on location for sunrises and sunsets that I wouldn’t otherwise get to, cameras, bike, coffee and cake all ready to hand in the back of the van.