Author Archives: Pete Ashton

Call Out for Artists

Open Call for R&D proposals using the new Birmingham Camera Obscura

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Birmingham Camera Obscura is an ongoing project by Jenny Duffin and Pete Ashton to explore new ways to use the camera obscura. The camera obscura is a device that predates modern photography by over 1000 years.

We are putting together a funding proposal to commission new work made using the new Birmingham Camera Obscura which will be touring the region from July 2015.

The camera is a 1x2x1 metre wooden box with a lens and mirror which projects a sharp image from outside onto a white screen. It flat-packs down and can be installed anywhere in minutes.

We want artists / technologists to help explore this tool in the development of new work. While we welcome photographers we particularly want to encourage people who do not usually work with “traditional” photography. Musicians, illustrators, dancers, etc.

We anticipate a budget of £1000 per work, to cover fees, and costs. The camera is based at Birmingham Open Media (BOM) where the R&D will take place.

Proposals should be sent to info@bhamobscura.com and can be any length you like but please address the following:

  • How the work will aid your personal artistic / technical development.
  • How the public might experience your work.

Remember no funding exists at this stage so please just send an outline of your intentions and some links to previous work.

The deadline is July 6th (but we’re not going to look at them before Thursday so if you missed the deadline get in now!). We will chose 4 proposals and, with your help, work them into an application which will be submitted during July. Subject to approval, the R&D will take place between October to March and will help inform our program for 2016.

The camera will be undergoing final testing through June at Birmingham Open Media (BOM). If you’d like to see it, Pete can arrange a visit. For more information see bhamobscura.com

Pete Ashton
Jenny Duffin

May update

Progress on the new camera has been slow and steady, with lots of small achievements that, in themselves, don’t seem worth reporting, because something else small will be done soon so we might as well wait for that before writing an update.

Is our excuse for silence. Let’s rectify that.

On Friday April 24th we met with carpenter Matt Moore to measure the optimal focusing length for the camera. With this figured out he set to work building the sides.

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The camera body was delivered to BOM by Matt on Monday 27th April. The pieces are an inch too wide to fit in Pete’s Ford Ka, which is irritating, but the Ka is due to fail its MOT this year so it’s not a huge problem.

As an aside, Pete’s wife occasionally tries to get him involved in looking for a new car, something he has no real interest in. And when she succeeds his only concern is the size of the boot. Will it fit the new camera in?

We built the camera on the stage at BOM and put the lens and mirror on it. It worked. Yay!

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Actually having the camera in front of us was a bit weird. It was exactly what we asked for but not exactly what we expected. Having an idea actualised by a third party is always an odd experience and this was no exception.

The next Friday we decided to stay away from BOM and the camera. We spent a few hours at the MAC, walking around the park talking about what the hell we were doing with this bloody big camera. The last year has been pretty momentous for both of us in different ways and we’re not the people we were when we first built a camera in Pete’s garden. Without going into details it was a good session and we’re ready to move forward.

Focusing was the next problem to solve and we spent a long time looking at jacks and lifts, none of which were suitable, until we stumbled across a Fisher Laboratory Scissor Jack on eBay for £30, not bad considering they cost £200 new. It’s wide enough to hold the metre square screen and subtle enough to enable perfect focusing. It’s a dream!

(In a camera obscura, where the lens is fixed to the roof, focusing is done by raising or lowering the screen. It’s much easier than raising the roof!)

Last Friday (you’ll notice we tend to do Obscura work on Fridays) we started painting the box. Matt black for the insides and varnish on the outsides. Having had the box built in Matt’s workshop it was good to be doing some “making” rather than planning at BOM for a change.

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With everything painted, and looking quite splendid, we put the box together again today and started working on the blackout. This is something we’d never figured out in the planning, deliberately waiting to see what the camera was like first. There are a surprising amount of options for this, from pleated curtains to shower rails to conical flaps. Eventually we went with a large sheet, currently of black plastic, which is fixed to the top of the camera and falls to the ground where it can be pegged in or left loose. We’re going to some advice from Matt on how to make it look as good as the camera itself (currently it’s a bit of a Pete special) and then we’ll be ready to go.

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You might have noticed we haven’t mentioned the wheels. One of the things we really wanted to keep was the portability of the old camera – to be able to wheel it around like a barrow and point it at anything. The new camera is just too heavy for the wheels we had in mind so were going to postpone this until we have the funds to get something made that will be stable and manoeuvrable, not to mention safe.

In the meanwhile the camera will be stationary. It’s still portable in the sense that it will fit in a car and can be erected in about 10 minutes, but once it’s up it’s up. True portability will be a 2016 project.

With the camera nearly ready we’re planning to give it a public test run at Digbeth First Friday on June 5th. Check the Twitter for our precise location.

Then throughout June we’ll be turning the camera into a spectacular attraction for all the family in time for its first professional appearance at CoCoMad in Cotteridge Park on Saturday 4th July.

And from then it begins! Birmingham will have a camera obscura! Woo!

Planning for the Spring

It’s suddenly spring, which took us slightly by surprise. The days are longer and the sun is shinier and it’s perfect for some camera obscura action.

The good news is we have a deadline and we’re very likely to meet it. If all goes to plan we’ll be out on the streets by the end of April. We’ll let you know where and when nearer the time!

Between now and then we have a few final things to do. Matt will be delivering the finished camera on Saturday 25th and we’ll be working on the finishing touches during the week of the 26th at BOM. You’re all very welcome to join us. Check the Twitter to see when we’ll be in.

And then, from May, Birmingham will have a camera obscura.

Yay!

The top and bottom of the new camera (sides to come) with Pete for scale.

The top and bottom of the new camera (sides to come) with Pete for scale.

We did have some bad news. We were turned down twice in our application for an Arts Council grant due, it seems, to there being too much competition for grant money at the moment. As such our ambitious plans to tour the camera have been put on hold. We will be taking it out as much as possible over the summer but won’t be able to invest as much time as we’d like behind the scenes.

This also curtails our ability to earn a wage from the camera (the application was to fund development of a sustainable business serving the community) so we’re going to change our focus a bit for 2015.

Our main objective for the year is to learn how our new camera works by taking it to local festivals and events,
and to experiment with other ways of building camera obscuras, large and small. We’re still thrashing out how we’ll do the latter but expect stuff like a DIY camera workshop or a giant camera made out of the fabric of the city itself.

In the meantime we hope to see you during the week of the 27th. Exciting!

February news update

Well, it’s been an interesting month. We took delivery of a major donation – a motorised lens and mirror housing custom built for a camera obscura and worth £1500 – which forced us to revise our plans. And we’re going to tell you all about it!

First the lens housing. It was donated by Tim Norgate who was building camera obscuras in Birmingham a decade ago and had similar plans to establish a permanent one in the city. His didn’t come to fruition but he did commission the lens and mirror setup from Beacon Hill Telescopes and used it in temporary cameras in Cannon Hill Park.

It’s a fantastic piece of kit and we’re unbelievably grateful, but because it’s designed to be used in a room the lens has a throw of 10ft. Our camera will be about a metre tall. So we’re going to need a new lens.

We phoned Beacon Hill and spoke to the lovely Barry Watts, a 76 year old telescope builder and camera obscura enthusiast. While talking we discovered the guy he gets to make lenses is the only person in the country who serves the hobby market (the rest do scientific grade lenses which cost thousands) and he’s moving studios soon, so won’t be able to work quickly.

In short, because the throw we need is so short, the new lens is going to cost £550 and it probably won’t be ready before the summer. We hadn’t expected it to cost that much, so that was an interesting moment.

We’ve dealt with this by shuffling the budget around. The lens housing has upped the game substantially and means we’re going to have professional standard optics. But it does mean some of the things we’d hoped to do will be postponed, specifically the fancy wheels, focussing mechanism and paint job. These will be good enough and we’ll look to making them fancy in 2016.

We’ve decided the important thing is that Birmingham has a world class camera obscura. Thanks to Tim’s donation we can do that now. It just might take a little longer to get all the pieces together.

Most importantly the delayed lens won’t slow us down. We’ll be using the same cheap lens as last year (£7 from ebay!) in the interim so as soon as Matt the carpenter has built the box we can be on the road!

Here’s the revised budget:

Rewards: £627.00
Carpentner & Wood: £870.00 
Lens: £550.00 
Wheels / base: £150.00 
Lens housing extras: £100.00 
Contingency: £50.00
Painting: £50.00

Total budgeted: £2,417.00
Total raised: £2,291.44

That takes us £125 over budget, so we’ll be doing a bit of extra fundraising. This shouldn’t be a problem though as we’ve already had an extra £100 since the Kickstarter from people who missed out and wanted to contribute. And we have merchandising plans. So it’ll all be fine!

In Other News

We’ve confirmed an installation at the Flatpack Film Festival in March. We will be making lots of small camera obscuras which we’ll be hanging in the window of Home Deli on Church Street. We’ll also be doing workshops where people can make their own. More details once they’re completely ironed out!

We are now a Community Interest Company! In the short term this doesn’t mean much but in the long term it helps us ensure this project is for “the community” and not just us.

The summer program is starting to come together. So far we’ve confirmed the CoCoMad festival and the Family Fun Day at Edgbaston Cricket Ground. If you’d like us to come to an event you’re involved with, or have ideas of places we could take the camera, please do let Jenny know!

Our new mirror and lens housing

We had a visit today from Tim Norgate who runs Pinhole Solutions and is based in Bearwood. A few years ago Tim was making camera obscura in Cannon Hill Park with large tents but always wanted to build a permanent camera obscura in Birmingham. Sadly he never did, so when he heard about our efforts he immediately got in touch.

To cut to the chase, he’s very generously donated his mirror and lens housing to our cause, and it’s amazing. Here’s a video of it in action:

You’ll notice immediately that it’s motorised! There are two switches, one for the angle of the mirror and the other to rotate it. This means it can point up and down in 360 degrees.

The lens has a throw of a 8 feet, which is too long for our portable camera but will be perfect if we were to install it in a room. And we can swap it out for a shorter throw lens with ease.

The mirror is top quality – the same sort you’ll find inside a DSLR – and won’t give any ghosting that normal mirrors do. Excellent optics all round.

Our plan is to fix it to the portable camera but have it easily detachable so we can use it for other projects. One issue is going to be weather proofing, so on Tim’s suggestion we’re looking into a glass enclosure, similar to a bell jar, that could sit over the mechanism and keep it dry, while also looking amazing. So if anyone knows where were can get a custom made glass (or clear plastic) bell jar like this please get in touch!

But for now we’re just happy to have such a wonderful piece of kit. Here’s some more photos of it:

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January Update

(Edited version of Kickstarter update)

Hope you had a good Xmas break. We’re now ready to get back to it, so here’s a quick update on what’s been happening.

We met with our carpenter, Matt Moore, last week to talk through our plans. We chose Matt because he can bring an artistic sensibility to the project along with being a competent chippy, so the camera should look great as well as be a hard-wearing contraption. We’re hoping he can start work next month.

We also had a generous donation of some lenses from Tim Norgate at Pinhole Solutions in Birmingham who we met last year. Tim become obsessed with the camera obscurae a few years ago but his kit has been in the attic. It’s now being put back to use. Thanks Tim!

Immediately after the Kickstarter ended we put in an application to the Arts Council for funding to develop Birmingham Obscura into a sustainable resource for arts and education through an enhanced program of events this year. We’ll hear if we’re successful on Feb 5th but even if we’re not (arts funding, like everything, has been cut to the bone in recent years) we’ll be out and about a lot.

The first thing we’ll definitely be doing is an installation for the Flatpack Film Festival. The exact location is still being negotiated but expect a giant tent camera somewhere in Birmingham City Centre in the last week of March.

We’re settling in nicely at Birmingham Open Media (BOM) in the centre of Birmingham. The studio has been cleaned up and kitted out so we can do whatever we need to do in there. We’ll also be running a series of events over the spring in association with BOM. Some will be about the project sharing our learnings, some will be more like workshops. Once these are scheduled we’ll let you know.

Inspirational Obscura: Torre de Tavira / Torre Tavira

In our search for camera obscura around the world we’re often told of one in Portugal and having found it we then discovered it shares a name with another one in Spain. The Torre de Tavira is a converted water tower on the Algarve while the Torre Tavira is in an 18th century watchtower in Cadiz. Not only do they share the same name and a sort-of similar language but they actually face each other over the Gulf of Cadiz, as seen on our Map Of Obscura

Camera Obscura Of The World-2

So we’ve sifted through the collective search engine results and here’s what we’ve found.

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Moving in to BOM

As you’re probably aware, we’ve been running a Kickstarter for the last twenty days to raise money to build the new camera and it’s going tremendously well – on target for £2,000 and maybe even more – so it’s time to start seriously planning for the future. 

One of the major changes for the new year is we’re actually going to have a base to build the camera and run what is most definitely by now a business. That base is Birmingham Open Media, aka BOM, a new space for art and technology in central Birmingham.

BOM is run by Karen Newman, a curator who’s previously worked at the Open Eye and FACT galleries in Liverpool. BOM’s focus is photography, but not in the usual sense. Certainly there’s a darkroom (one of very few in the city) and a professional studio for hire in the basement, but BOM is for people who want to explore the fundamentals of making images in more depth, be it new developments in digital imaging or the basic technologies that gave birth to the medium in the 19th century. 

When we’re thinking about our camera obscura, and what we want to do with it, this overlap between art and technology is pretty much where we want to be. It’s art because it makes people see the world in a different way and challenge their preconceptions. And it’s technology because we’re working with optics and light, literally putting people inside a camera so they can experience how it works. Everything we do over the next few years will try to respect this balance. 

Or to put it more simply, we want to be here. 

And BOM also wants to be here. So it makes sense for us to be at BOM.

There are other, more practical, reasons for being based at BOM. The first is access to space. We’re going to be in Studio 1 which is on the ground floor next to the cafe, which we’ll be kitting out to suit our needs, such as they are. 

Feel the potential! 

We chose this above a larger space downstairs because it’s easy for people to visit. Whenever we’re working on the camera you’ll be able to knock on the door and say hi. This is important not just because of the way the camera is funded but because we value your input and, in many cases, skills. 

Which is the third reason for being based here. We’ve been quite open about how were figuring out a lot of this as we go along, particularly the optics and carpentry stuff, and BOM is one of those spaces that encourages openness. We’ll be able to tap into the pool of expertise here, and the networks that spread out from it, rather that just get frustrated when things don’t work.

Today was spent clearing out the room and thinking about how we’ll use it. We’ll be fitting it out over the next fortnight. 

We officially start building the camera in January and will post the dates we’ll be in on this site and, of course, to Twitter. Hope to see you there!