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Paper Cameras, Pinhole/Obscurae

BY A. D. COLEMAN

Making a potato-chip can  pinhole camera, 1

Making a potato-chip can pinhole camera, 1

K-12 teachers of photography often face the problem of the cost of equipment and supplies. That has become increasingly true during this recession, with funding for arts education often the first item to get the ax during cost-cutting frenzies.

Fortunately, you can still do a lot of photography on an extremely modest budget. Enabling your students to create their own paper cameras works as a magical introduction to the medium’s history and basic operations, but you can introduce it at any point in the curriculum.

I got interested in this pedagogically as a result of hearing Joann Brennan introduce Abelardo Morell as the keynote speaker for the 2011 Society for Photographic Education (SPE) National Conference in Atlanta this past March. A former student of Morell’s, she recalled her first Photo 101 class with Morell, in which the makings for a simple tube camera obscura sat on each student’s desk when they entered the classroom. According to Brennan, Morell assembled his tube camera casually while introducing the subject, and within half an hour they had all put together their own and looked around the room through them, enthralled by the phenomenon. So it works with students at all grade levels, including post-secondary; but the low cost and ease (and fun) of creation makes it particularly useful for faculty with younger students.

Making a potato-chip can pinhole camera, 2

Making a potato-chip can pinhole camera, 2

When I queried him about it, Morell told me that he’d forgotten this assignment and couldn’t reconstruct it. He didn’t originate the idea, of course. Online searching brought up a slew of how-to instructions and lesson plans. If you find something better than what I’ve gathered here, let me know and I’ll consider adding it to this selection:

  • Here’s a template for making a “Tube Camera Obscura.” It comes from Willett and Patteson’s Camera Obscura site, which also includes DIY instructions on making a cheap room camera obscura.
  • You can have students roll their own tube out of something like black construction paper. You can recycle just about any kind of cardboard tube that you can cut through easily — toilet-paper, paper-towel, and gift-wrap tubes, for example. Or, getting fancier, you can recycle the cylindrical cans in which numerous brands of cookies and pre-formed snack chips are sold. (Note: The New Eyes Project does not endorse consumption of junk foods.) Here, from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, are instructions on making a Potato Chip Can Pinhole Camera. And here’s a video of that approach, from YouTube. (You’ll find multiple demo videos at YouTube.)
  • Because those cans are more durable, you can cut film or photo paper to fit them and use them as full-fledged cameras. Here’s one set of instructions for that process, and here’s another.
  • This slideshow by Gregg Favalora demonstrates the making of a “Soda-box camera obscura with lens.”
  • After this, you can move on to making a more elaborate box camera obscura with lens.
Dirkon paper camera

Dirkon paper camera

You can then progress to the crafting of a paper/cardboard camera that uses roll film.

  • Here’s a set of instructions from Jaroslav Juřica for creating what he calls the Rubikon 2, an almost cost-free paper pinhole camera that will take 35mm. film. Via Creative Commons, it comes complete with a PDF manual (in English, Spanish, or Portuguese) that includes a template you can print out and use to make as many of these as you need for your class.
  • Juřica, who’s Czech, intends this as an improvement on the Dirkon, a design for an earlier 35mm. paper camera created by Martin Pilný, Mirek Kolář, and Richard Vyškovský, and published in 1979 (still the period of Czechoslovakia’s occupation by the U.S.S.R.) in the Czech magazine ABC mladých techniků a přírodovědců [An ABC of Young Technicians and Natural Scientists]. You’ll find instructions and a template of the Dirkon at David Balihar’s site, Pinhole.cz.
  • Here’s a link to a set of instructions from 1885 on how to make a variety of cameras obscurae, courtesy of Jack and Beverly Wilgus’s site, The Magic Mirror of Life: an appreciation of the Camera Obscura
  • “Learning About Light,” a set of camera obscura templates, instructions, and lesson plans from Juliana Lim, Mark Rau, and Ruchi Sanghvi.
  • Finally, here are the outlines of half-day, one-day, three-day, and five-day “Camera Obscura & Pinhole Photography Workshops” (for grades 4-12) from Andrzej Maciejewski, who travels around Canada with his Mobile Camera Obscura offering such tutorials as a freelance teacher. You can adapt these to your own teaching situation.
Dirkon paper camera

Dirkon paper camera

A fringe benefit of this assignment: Depending on the level of your students, and your sense of what they can absorb, you get to go way back into the prehistory of photography and the origins of visual culture. You can bring in the awareness of the camera obscura principle among the ancient Chinese (Mo Ti), the ancient Arabs (Alhazen), the ancient Greeks (Euclid). You can discuss Talbot’s frustration with it as a drawing device, and how that led to his invention of the calotype. You can introduce basic principles of optics. (Why is the image upside down?) You can take your students from the activity of visually observing the camera obscura image to recording it on film or paper. You can stay lensless, or add lenses. You can use this for a single lesson, or build a semester’s curriculum with it.

Meanwhile, you’re demonstrating by example that you don’t need an expensive camera, or even an inexpensive store-bought one, to observe the world and make photographs.

[Postscript: You might consider tying this in to Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, held each year on the last Sunday in April. You and your students can upload results to this site, where they will become part of the site's permanent gallery. They have extensive shows up now for every year since 2001.]

A. D. Coleman is the publisher and editor of The New Eyes Project and Teaching Photography. For more information, click here.

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