The next in our Isolated Moments series, aiming to keep spirits buoyed and creativity alive during COVID-19 global social isolating, quarantining and social distancing measures, comes from artist and photographer James Smith. James’ practice typically studies the ways in which post-war politics have been inscribed into the English landscape.
Photography’s main tool is a camera. The camera’s parent is the Camera Obscura, from the Latin meaning “dark chamber”.
As a child I had my own chamber – an attic bedroom where the South-East facing window blind had a small hole torn in it. On a sunny morning that bright light bounced off the scene from outside, through the tiny hole, flipping and reversing a projection of it onto my bedroom wall. A quite stunningly simple but moving experience. The wide world outside was now inside, contained and controlled in my own personal safe space – my camera, something I found and still find very calming and settling.
This workshop aims to help you make your own calm camera by creating a Camera Obscura at home.
You will need:
- A room with a South-ish facing window-view, ideally with bright coloured walls and ceiling
- Opaque blackout material, such as thick black paper, thin cardboard or black plastic bags
- A blade, cutting surface and a straight cutting edge
- A Pencil
- A Tape measure
- A Roll of gaffer tape
- A Roll of double-sided tape
- A 5p piece
- A Blanket
- Adhesive remover, such as nail polisher remover or white spirit
- A Scraper
- An Armchair, or even better a Bed!
- Some patience
- An adult’s permission!
- Choose your room. Upstairs, above ground level could give better results depending on the distance of your view – the further your calm camera can see the better.
- Carefully measure the height and width of your window.
- Cut your blackout material to a few cm bigger than the window size so that the extra material can be fixed to the frame.
- Before you attach the material to the window, carefully fold the top right corner to bottom left corner, and unfold before folding the top left corner to bottom right corner. When unfolded these diagonal creases should cross at the exact centre of the material.
- Place the 5p at on the centre point. Draw around it with your pencil and carefully cut the circle out with a blade.
- On what will be the glass side of the blackout material, make and stick a small square frame of double-sided tape around and very close to the hole. This will be the camera’s Aperture.
You may find it easier to create the Aperture on a separate smaller piece of blackout material and stick this centrally to the window first. Then black out the rest of the window, making any joins in the material light-tight with the gaffer tape.
- Attach your blackout material to the window frame with gaffer tape, half of the tape on your chosen blackout material and half on window frame. Make sure there is no light leakage. Add more gaffer tape if you need to.
- Check the area around the Aperture is stuck tight to the glass of the window. This step is important. The window is the camera’s Lens.
- If you can, temporarily remove any picture frames or hangings from walls opposite the window.
(If you have more than one window in your room make sure all the light is blacked out, apart from that coming through your Lens. Choose the most centrally situated window for this.)
- Put your blanket or clothing around the door to cover any light cracks and turn off all light sources and electrical devices.
- Sit or lay back inside your room with your newly created dark chamber.
- Allow 5 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the back-to-front, upside-down image of the landscape-view now projected upon your walls.
What I was good at as a child (and reminded about on a regular basis) is colloquially known as daydreaming. Professionally, I now like to call this term observing, through the act of photography.
Try experimenting with different sized holes. A really bright day could warrant a smaller aperture, creating more detail.
If the weather is overcast try around midday. A moonlit night can also work too!
This might take around 30/40 minutes preparation time but offers endless enjoyment.
If you decide to disassemble your calm camera the gaffer tape can be cleaned from PVC window frames and glass easily using the scraper and adhesive remover. Be careful sticking gaffer tape to wooden and painted surfaces!
Images from a workshop with James Smith and The CE Academy, creating a calm camera at Sudborough Green Lodge.