It's Halloween! Jen-Luc Piquant has donned her usual vampire costume for the occasion, although she was tempted to dress up as Lady Gaga this year, just to mix things up a bit. But a Gaga outfit would have clashed with her stylin' beret, and let's face it: Jen-Luc was never meant to be a bleached blonde. Just in time for the spooky festivities, we stumbled across an amazing twist on the pinhole camera, via The Daily What (one of our must-read feeds). Artsy photographer Wayne Martin Belger constructs his own pinhole cameras, which are works of art all by themselves — and in this case, he built a pinhole camera out of, well, a 150-year-old human skull of a 13-year-old girl.
It's called "The Third Eye," and his website claims he has used it "to study the beauty of decay." The camera is about 4 inches by inches, and has elements made of aluminum, titantium, brass and silver, with the occasional gem stone thrown in — because accessorizing is so important. The light enters through the "third eye" (basically an aperture in the middle of the skull's forehead), and projects an inverted image of whatever scene is within the reference frame of the camera's field of view. (There is no lens.) I couldn't find any specific information on the exposure times Baker used, but with any pinhole camera, it can range from five seconds to several hours, and, in some cases, days.
Probably the earliet version of a pinhole camera was known as the camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”), the precursor to the pinhole camera. In its simplest form, the camera obscura is little more than a small hole in a shade or a wall, through which light passes from a sunlit garden, for example, into a darkened room, projecting an inverted image of the scene onto a wall opposite the hole. An artist could tack a piece of sketch paper to the wall and trace the key outlines of the subject, then complete the painting.
The phenomenon results from the linear nature of light, evidence of the “particle” side of its dual personality. Light reflects off each point of an object and travels out in all directions, and the pinhole acts as a lens, letting in a narrow beam from each point in a scene. The beams travel in a straight line through the hole and then intersect, so that light from the bottom of the scene hits the top of the opposite wall, and vice versa, producing an upside-down image of the outside world on the wall.
The visual effect can be quite striking. “When I first saw an image projected like this, I just thought I was seeing God,” New York City artist Vera Lutter told The New Yorker in March 2004. She actually creates life-sized silver gelatin prints using the camera obscura principle, tacking large photo sensitive paper to that wall and recording the image, often over a long period of time. She got the idea while living inan old high-rise loft in the Garment District (an illegal sublet, in fine Big Apple tradition). As she told BOMB magazine in 2004:
I was overwhelmed and incredibly impressed by the city, the light, the sound, the busyness of the streets. It was fantastic. Through the windows, the outside world flooded the space inside and penetrated my body. It was really an impressive experience on all levels, and I decided to turn it into an art piece: the space, the room inside which I had this experience, would become the container to transform that very experience. The room would become a transfer station from outside to inside, the window itself the eye that sees from inside out. I placed a pinhole on the window surface and replaced my body with a sensitive material, and that was the photographic paper. This setup was meant to record my experience, in place of myself. My intention was not to make a photograph as such but to make a conceptual piece that in its own way repeated and transformed what I had observed. Conceptual art was the spirit in which I was trained in art school. At the same time, I wanted to keep the process as immediate and direct as possible. That’s why I decided to work with the pinhole and not a lens, and to project immediately onto photographic paper and not use the intermediary of the negative, which conventionally is printed and editioned in photography.
There are accounts of camera obscura (or related phenomena) in writing from ancient Greece, China, and other places, but one of the most exhaustive studies of the science behind the effect took place in the 11th century, thanks to Arabian scholar Alhazen of Basra (a.k.a. Ibn Al-Haytham). The son of a civil servant, living during what we now know as the Islamic "Golden Age," Alhazen devised a plan to construct a dam to control flooding of the Nile River in Egypt. When he pitched his idea to Egypt’s ruler, Caliph al-Hakim, he wound up with a commission to do just that. Alas, al-Hakim was known as “the Mad Caliph.” He didn’t provide sufficient funds, materials or labor to complete the project, and yet failure was not an option. To avoid being summarily executed for his failure, Alhazen did the only sensible thing: he pretended to be mad himself until the caliph died in 1021. He ended up under house arrest.
Since he had a lot of time to kill, Alhazen figured out how to conduct simple experiments in optics. He darkened a room and made a hole in one wall, and hung five lanterns in the room next door. He noticed that five “lights” then appeared on the wall inside the darkened room. The lanterns and the hole were arranged in a straight line, so he concluded that light travels in straight lines.
And even though the light from all five lanterns traveled through the hole at the same time, it didn’t get mixed up in the process: there were still five separate “lights” on the wall. Since Aristotle, the common assumption had been that the eye sent out rays of light to scan objects. Alhazen determined that light was reflected into the eye from the things one observed. He also recorded the laws of reflection and refraction, correctly attributing the effects to the fact that light travels more slowly through denser mediums. His treatise on optics, Kitab-al-Manadhirn, was translated into Latin in the Middle Ages — one of only a handful of his more than 200 works that survived.
The 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is believed to have used the camera obscura. American etcher and lithographer Joseph Pennell first speculated on the possibility in 1891, citing as evidence the “photographic perspective” of certain paintings. Others have pointed to how Vermeer seems to reproduce idiosyncracies of optical images and “out-of-focus” effects, such as the reflection of sources of light off shiny surfaces. More recently, Philip Steadman – a professor of architecture and town planning at University College London and author of Vermeer’s Camera – worked backwards from the conventional method of artists for setting up perspective views, reconstructing the geometry of the spaces depicted.
Steadman (somewhat controversially) concluded that as many as ten different paintings represent the very same room. Steadman maintains that his perspective reconstructions make it possible to plot the positions in space of the theoretical viewpoints of each of the ten paintings. He didn’t just rely on fancy mathematics; he tested his predictions, like any good scientist. Specifically, he built a one-sixth scale physical model of the room in question, outfitted it with a photographic plate camera in place of Vermeer’s camera obscura, then created photographic simulations of the paintings, testing light and shadow — all of which Vermeer faithfully reproduced in paint, lending credence to Steadman’s theory. The BBC built a full-size reconstruction for a television film on the subject. It cast a full-size image of The Music Lesson onto a translucent screen, bright enough to show up on film, and certainly sufficient to have served as a drawing aid for Vermeer.
And now modern-day artists (like Lutter and Belger) are following in Vermeer's footsteps, giving rise to an entirely new field of photography more commonly known as solargraphy. Solargraphy is pretty much the most common use of pinhole cameras these days, which can be constructed out of very simple materials, enhancing their appeal to (frequently impoverished) artists. All you need is a box capable of shutting out all light, except for what enters through a small pinhole in one end. Need a shutter? Any old cardboard flap will do, taped over the pinhole in such a way that it can swing open or shut, just like a hinge. Or you can just adapt an old 35 mm camera, replacing the lens with a simple pinhole and keeping the shutter and film winding mechanisms.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco helpfully provides instructions online for building your own pinhole camera out of a discarded Pringles can. Photographer Stewart Woody notoriously uses a pinhole camera he built out of an old oatmeal box. British photographer Justin Quinnel creates solographic images using pinhole cameras, as does Finnish photographer Tarja Trygg (a sample image is on the left).
But the world's largest pinhole camera, according to Wikipedia, was built in an old F-18 hangar at a defunct fighter base in Irvine, California. It took six photographers and a small army of assistants to block out all the light from the hangar, using black tape and black spray paint (40 gallons' worth!). Then they coated a large piece of muslin with gelatin silver halide to make it light-sensitive (Lutter would approve) and hung it from the ceiling. They had to develop the film in a gigantic tray the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The end result? A haunting image of the air station, with control tower and runways, with the San Joaquin Hills visible in the distance, preserved for posterity. It wasn't a small print, either, measuring 108 feet side and 85 feet high. I'm sure it barely fit into the exhibit space at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design when it debuted in September 2007.
But size isn't everything, right? Maybe Belger's skull-adapted pinhole camera can't compete with an airplane hangar on the size scale, but he certainly wins mega-bonus points from the cocktail party for having his camera not just be a tool to produce a photographic work of art — but to transcend its utilitarian functions to become a work of art in itself.