Author Archives: Pete Ashton

Sketching Obscura at the Warwick Arts Centre

Yesterday Jenny and I attended the opening of Gerard Byrne’s exhibition at the Mead Gallery within the Warwick Arts Centre. The centrepiece, a new work called Jielemeguvvie guvvie sjisjnjeli – Film inside an image, is quite spectacular and well worth a visit.

Alongside the exhibition is an educational room curated by Jo Gane looking at the history of photography, and we were asked to build a small camera obscura for drawing on. We’d been wanting to make a new camera so gladly took up this modest commission.

Here it is in situ, next to Kerry Leslie‘s diagram (who is also under the cover).

IMG_0407

We used an old cabinet donated by a neighbour and neatly cut a hole in the front and top. The front has a +2 close-up lens (twice as strong as the one in our big camera) which focusses at about 50cm away. The top has a thick piece of frosted plastic which captures the image from behind allowing you to place tracing paper over it and make a drawing. Inside the cabinet is a mirror at 45 degrees.

Like all cameras that are made from scratch, it’s an experiment that we didn’t completely know would work until it was installed in the gallery, but we’re happy with it. Where it fails is with the internal lighting which is only just bright enough, but were it moved outside it would be perfect. The view is also a little low, capturing people’s legs rather than their heads, but that can be fixed by raising the camera up a couple of steps, or people crouching down.

But it works, and everyone is pleased, so we’re pleased. Not bad for a week’s work!

The exhibition is on for three months with our camera in situ throughout. We’ll also be bringing the big camera to Warwick during half term on Tuesday Feb 16th for the afternoon and running build-your-own workshops as part of a week of activities. Hope to see you there!

Richard Learoyd’s Dark Mirror at the V&A – a review

Pete pops down to London to see an exhibition of prints made with a camera obscura

Model 1 (detail) by Richard Learoyd

I was initially skeptical of Richard Learoyd’s work, currently on show at the V&A. He claims to make photographs with a camera obscura and that doesn’t make sense. A camera obscura doesn’t make photographs. If it does, then it’s no longer an obscura, it’s just a camera, regardless of its size. (Camera Photographica, maybe?) A camera obscura, by my definition, is a camera you get inside and see the projected image with your own eyes, not a dark box in which a light-sensitive surface is exposed to photons. Regardless of the outcome, if Learoyd is using a camera obscura, then so are all photographers. And if we allow that then the “dark room” is rendered meaningless. So you can see why I might object to that.

Thankfully the work is amazingly good. He uses large sheets of positive photographic paper to make a unique print inside the camera, very nearly capturing the uncanny hyper-realism of the camera obscura projection. In the portraits, hair, moles and other tiny details on the skin are clearly visible and skin tones are so subtle. This alone would be impressive, but he also makes good use of the camera obscura’s extreme depth of focus where the clarity suddenly falls off creating an eerie mist around the subject.

The prints were the closest I’ve come to seeing the strangeness of the camera obscura experience rendered on paper. They were unique to that device and couldn’t have been made in a standard camera, regardless of its size. This is true camera obscura art, and I’m sure Learoyd will be delighted to hear of my approval.

His process is also intriguing. As I understand it, his camera has two rooms, one for the model and one for the exposure. Once the model is posed and the focus fixed, the lights are turned off, the paper installed and an exposure made by triggering a powerful flash. We’ve been pondering how to make prints with our camera, struggling with the logistics of a shutter, and this system of simply controlling the lighting makes much more sense, assuming you have access to strong flash guns.

The exhibition is free to enter at the V&A until Feb 14th 2016 (info) and is highly recommended. See also this Guardian interview.

Arts Council funding secured

The big news of today is we’ve been successful in applying for some Arts Council funding. A few months ago we announced an Open Call for artists to create new work with the Kickstarter funded camera obscura. The successful applicants were added to a Grant for the Arts submission for £10,800 over six months. We now have that money.

This means a number of things can happen, some of which might not be obvious.

The main one is five artworks / performances will emerge in the Spring of next year using our camera obscura. You can read the submitted ideas but be aware they will undergo substantial development over the winter!

The other main thing is Jenny and Pete are now employed by Birmingham Camera Obscura for six months earning £500 a month each. While on paper this is to manage the funded R&D activity, in reality it means we’ll be able to dedicate significant time to the project as a whole and do the things we’ve had to put off in order to pay the rent. No more squeezing camera obscura work into our spare time. (The first priority will be sorting out the remaining Kickstarter rewards because that’s just getting embarrassing!)

Other things that will happen:

  • More updates on the website. We need to document our activities and write more blog posts.
  • Creation of an educational workshop package for schools. We had a good visit this week to Lyndon School whose teachers are keen to help us develop it into something
    we can take to schools across Birmingham.
  • Consolidation and development of our resources. We’ve collected a lot of knowledge about camera obscuras over the last couple of years and need to sort it out, alongside the research our five artists will be undertaking.
  • Development of a touring program for 2016. We’ve set aside some funds for consultation on how best to tour the camera, and the works developed for it, locally, nationally and internationally. We need to get it out there more frequently and more sustainably than we managed this year.
  • Finishing bits of the camera. We always intended to give it some wheels and it needs to be more weather proof. We can get on with that now.
  • Being more available at BOM and elsewhere. Alongside some formal workshops and open days for this specific project we’re going to be available for people to come visit to discuss camera obscuras or just catch up with what we’re doing.
  • And plenty more which hasn’t come to mind just now!

If the Kickstarter was Stage Two of this project, then this feels like Stage Three, a major change in how we do things and laying some solid foundations for the future. Thanks as ever to everyone who’s supported us to date, from giving a bit of cash to offering advice and wisdom. May there be many more stages!

Highbury Harvest this Saturday

Weather permitting (and it’s currently looking at bit iffy) the camera obscura will be set up at Highbury Park, between Kings Heath and Stirchley, for their harvest celebration of five years of community gardening. It’ll be a lovely afternoon regardless and well worth popping along to if you’re local.

We expect to be set up in the middle of the park, at the play area up from the car park. If you follow the main path you’ll find us!

As always check Twitter if you’re coming to see us specially. If the weather looks really dodgy we may cancel.

HarvestPoster-website

South Birmingham Tour!

Over the next few days we’re undertaking a tour of South Birmingham! Jenny’s not sure it constitutes a real tour but Pete’s convinced that if we load the camera into a car and go to three separate venues before taking it back to BOM it’s a real tour, like what rock bands do. So there.

Saturday we’ll be at Moseley Bog alongside the Mini Beasts and Bugs event from 1-4pm.

Sunday afternoon Pete’s going to set up the camera at Hazelwell Allotments next to Hazelwell Park in Stirchley, where his wife has a plot, and mess around with it for an hour or so. It’s not an official event so check the Twitter for when he’s there and give him a ring on 07775 690106 if the gates are locked.

Monday we don’t have anything planned. Any ideas?

Tuesday we’re at Stirchley Community Market from 4-8pm, held in the garden of the delightful British Oak Pub on Pershore Road. The market has food and crafts from local small traders and is always a delight.

And then it’s back to BOM.

Hope to see some of you!

Some classical Camera Obscura

Our attention was drawn this week to the MadameGilflurt Twitter account who posts curious artworks from the 18th century and who had dug up this beauty, titled “The Camera Obscura” by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo.

MadameGilflurt_2015-Aug-25

We got in touch and she used her archive-fu to dig up more for us, none of which we’d seen before, so here they are!

L'optique', J.F. Cazenave, Louis-Léopold Boilly, ca. 1794

L’optique’, J.F. Cazenave, Louis-Léopold Boilly, ca. 1794

Optics: the principle of the camera obscura. Wellcome Library, London.

Optics: the principle of the camera obscura. Wellcome Library, London.

Camera obscura (top) and a Leeuwenhoek style microscope (below). Engraving by Benard [after Lucotte].

Camera obscura (top) and a Leeuwenhoek style microscope (below). Engraving by Benard [after Lucotte].

A seated man looking through a camera obscura at half a skeleton suspended upside down from a tripod as two men look on. Etching.

A seated man looking through a camera obscura at half a skeleton suspended upside down from a tripod as two men look on. Etching.

Thanks Catherine!

R&D artists decided upon

WIND2

Last week Jenny and I worked through the many and varied submissions for the open call and whittled them down to five. We were aiming for four, but that was just a number picked out the air and these felt like a good set, so five it is.

Here they are with a very brief summary of their idea.

Dolly Kershaw – augmenting the camera with mechanical devices so it can be controlled by the wind.

Gen Doy – a solo performance inside the camera using spoken word and song.

Matthew Gabrielli – a new play based on the history of the camera to be performed with / in it.

Michael Lightborne – an interactive installation on a traffic island.

Sophie Bullock – a video installation exploring the visual qualities of the camera.

Our aim is that, by letting these people use their camera to create new work, we can learn new things about the camera obscura as an artistic tool, the development of which pretty much stopped in the 19th century when the camera was co-opted by photography. We will therefore be documenting this entire process and sharing it with you all, and hope that our findings will inform how we use the camera in 2016 and onwards.

In order to do this properly, though, we need to obtain funding and an application to the Arts Council’s Grants For The Arts fund is in progress. If this is successful work will start in October!

(Pic at top – Dolly Kershaw’s wind-powered cine-camera.)

Open Call – one week to go

Our Open Call closes on Monday 6th July and we’ve had a number of good ideas through. It’s not too late though, and now we’ve had a chance to discuss it and think more about why we’re doing this, a recap might be useful.

The main thing to remember is we’re not looking for perfectly realised ideas. We have to satisfy three needs – what you want to do, what we want to do and, most importantly, what the Arts Council are prepared to fund. As such we’ll be taking the successful proposals and working them into the proposal, not using them as they come. This is just the start of the process.

Alongside this you’re not limited to one idea. The camera can be quite inspirational so send us all you have. Sometimes the most simple, off-hand idea is the best.

Another important thing to remember is how this will help you develop your work. R&D is an investment, and that should apply to you too.

Don’t worry about the technical aspects, or your lack of technical skills. Being based at BOM we have no problem making stuff work. What we need are the ideas to direct the tech, which is where you come in.

Finally, the Arts Council funded thing isn’t the only stuff we want to do art-wise. Because the camera is crowdfunded we see ourselves more as protective custodians than owners, and as such we actively want people to do cool things with it. If your idea isn’t suitable for the open call, it’s not because it’s necessarily a bad idea. It could be something we’d want to explore separately, so get it in.

So far we’ve had ideas from a singer, a gypsy jazz band, two playwrights, an experimental photographer, a video artist interested in Sigmund Freud’s use of the camera obscura, and someone who wants to fill the camera with programmable LEDs and turn it into a projector, with many more promised as the deadline approaches.

If we had to sum it up, keep it simple!

The camera will be at Many & Varied at The Bond in Digbeth on Friday 3rd July from all afternoon and into the evening if you’d like to have a look at it. And then at Cotteridge Park on Saturday.

The full Open Call text is here. Send your ideas to info@bhamobscura.com and we’ll make out decision within a couple of weeks.

Deadline Saturday!

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 16.45.20

This Saturday we’ll be bringing the new camera obscura, crowd-funded through Kickstarter in December, to Cotteridge Park near Bournville, to meet the public for the very first time at the CoCoMad festival. It’s been quite a rollercoaster of a half-year but here we are with a fully functional portable camera obscura. Yay!

As we write this on Tuesday we have a couple of things left to do. The electrics for the mirror rotation motors are functional but a bit of a mess, so we’ll be breaking out the soldering iron and tidying them up. We also need to collect the banner which Gareth finished yesterday. So if you’re at CoCoMad look out for this:

Bham Obscura Banner

It’s three metres wide and designed to work in thirds when wrapped around the camera or, if we have a stall or something, as a backdrop. And the text explains the history, science and art of the camera obscura along with a bit about this project.

Of course, like anything important the launch day is simply the beginning. Now we have to give the camera the audience it deserves and get it out as much as possible. If you can help with this, either by giving us contacts and referrals for busy public events or simply hosting the camera yourself, please get in touch with Jenny.

And while getting people to look inside the camera and seeing their big grins when they come out is amazing, it’s important the camera does not become a novelty. We have many thoughts on using the camera obscura as a 21st century artistic tool but we need more. Our current Open Call is the start of this and we’re always open to ideas. Contact either of us if you have a good one.

But for now we look forward to seeing some of you at Cotteridge Park from 12 noon on Saturday 4th July, showing you the camera you helped build and thanking you very very much.

Finances!

One of the pledges we made in the Kickstarter campaign was to be transparent with the finances for this project. Six months after we received the funds and with the camera nearly ready, let’s have a look at where the money’s gone.

First the build of the camera itself, then the accounts for the project as a whole.

Camera Build

Income:

Kickstarter donations after fees £2,216.44
Other donations £75.00
Total £2,291.44

Expenses:

Budget Spent Remaining
Rewards £627.00 £288.74 £338.26
Contingency £50.00 £0.00 £50.00
Blackout £50.00 £0.00 £50.00
Wood £498.30 £498.30 £0.00
Carpenter £360.00 £360.00 £0.00
Painting £34.97 £34.97 £0.00
Lens £550.00 £200.00 £350.00
Focussing £32.00 £32.00 £0.00
Wheels / base £50.00 £24.50 £25.50
Mirror Housing £40.00 £17.80 £22.20

The astute amongst you will notice out budget is 83 pence over our income. We hope to iron that out towards the end of the build.

So, how does that break down?

Rewards

Reward Budget Spent Remaining
Mini COs £275.00 £275.00
Posters £75.00 £73.50 £1.50
Stickers + Postcards £102.00 £102.00 £0.00
Plaque £20.00 £20.00
Photo Prints £15.00 £15.00
Postage £140.00 £88.29 £51.71

As you can see, we haven’t produced the Mini Camera Obscuras, nor made the plaque or the photo prints, but the money for these is still in the bank. Once we have time we’ll get them done asap. There’s also £50 left for posting the cameras out. Postage for the poster was much higher than we anticipated so if this isn’t enough we’ll subsidise it with our own money.

Contingency

We haven’t needed this yet! If it’s not used we’ll hold for the inevitable repairs fund.

Blackout

This is the curtain on the front of the camera, which we’ll be working on this month. (If anyone has 3 metres of red velvet-style curtain they don’t want, we can use it!)

Wood and Carpenter

Matt Moore built and delivered the camera body to budget, and even did some extra bits for free. Thanks Matt!

Painting

We bought some varnish and black paint. We have plenty of black paint left over.

Lens

The lens that’s currently in the camera is a stop-gap, costing a tenner from eBay. It still creates a nice image, but we’re getting a much better one made. The £200 was a deposit and the £350 is payable on delivery. It will be made to fit the mirror housing and be hand polished by (we’re told) the last lens polisher for the hobbyist market in the UK. We’re hoping to have it this summer.

Focussing

This covered the hand-cranked scissor lift which holds the screen in place. If we have budget left we’re hoping to add a lever to make focussing easier, but as it stands it does the job fine.

Wheels / Base

When the camera body was delivered it was very clear our ideas for mounting it on wheels were desperately wrong. Since much of the budget is being spent on the lens we’ve decided to have the camera standing still and have simply bought some cheap IKEA coffee tables for it to stand on. Next year we hope to raise funds for some bespoke wheels so it can be moved around a festival field.

Mirror Housing

This was donated to us by Tim Norgate and cost him £1500 to get made a decade ago, which was very generous of him, but it still needed some money spent on it, specifically new batteries and wiring. We’ve got the batteries. We’re working on the wiring.

And that’s about it. As the realities of the camera knocked our theoretical budget around we had to make some adjustments, but we’re happy that we’re coming in on budget and have the camera we promised you. The big failure is it’s not on wheels like the prototype, but we can still have it up in 20 minutes, so it’s still technically pretty damn portable. We just feel we’d rather raise some more money for the wheels and do them properly than put the camera on something crappy.

Bham Obscura accounts

We haven’t had a lot of income yet. Our applications for Arts Council funding to develop the project as a resource were turned down which was intended to give us time to create income streams, but this just means it’s going to be a slower process than we anticipated.

The end goal is still that we’re able to make significant personal income from this project so we can dedicate more time and energy to getting the camera out. Volunteering our time for free is great in the short term but not sustainable.

So here’s what’s happened money-wise since December.

Date Item Income Expenses Balance
29/11/2014 Carried over from 2014 £70.00 £70.00
07/12/2014 Investment £100.00 £170.00
08/12/2014 Racking Shelving – studio £27.99 £142.01
08/12/2014 Cork Boards – studio £30.99 £111.02
19/01/2015 Company Registration £35.00 £76.02
30/01/2015 Mag Glasses for Workshops £19.80 £56.22
29/04/2015 Flatpack Installation income £200.00 £256.22
29/04/2015 Flatpack Installation fees £90.01 £166.21
29/04/2015 Flatpack Installation expenses £109.99 £56.22

We had £70 left over from running workshops last year and put in another £100 of our own money to give us something to work with. The shelving and cork board were for the studio at BOM. Company registration was necessary for the Arts Council application and was something we’d be wanting to do eventually anyway. Magnifying glasses are what we do our workshops with. The Flatpack Festival was our first paid installation / workshop of the year and after the costs we split the remaining £90 between us.

As you can see, Bham Obscura is not a particularly lucrative business and we need to develop more paid work through it for this to be a sustainable venture. We’re confident that once the camera has been out and people have seen what we can do with it this shouldn’t be insurmountable.

We decided the other week that all income from camera obscura related activities will be pooled and divided between us equally. Income in this case is money from appearances, talks, workshops and other things where someone pays us to be there. Other income, such as donations and fundraising, is ring-fenced for the development and maintenance of the camera itself. We intend to keep these very separate.

And that’s everything. Any questions, please do get is touch!