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).


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!


2015 year's roundup

Festive hilarity
(Slightly late now) Festive Greetings from Jenny and Pete

Happy New Year!
Firstly we’d like to say a big Thank You to all of those who have supported us this year, from being part of the Kickstarter campaign in late 2014 which allowed us to actually build the new camera in 2015, to those of you who visited us at events, took an interest, who spread the word, hired us for an event, applied to our artist callout or attended a workshop (and the rest). And also to Arts Council England for funding our next phase!

We hope you all had a good festive break. Here’s to 2016 being just as exciting.

2015 in summary:

January – March

We started the year with moving into BOM after successfully raising enough money through our Kicktstarter campaign to build a new camera. Tim at Pinhole Solutions then kindly donated the lens housing to us and we started talking to Matt Moore about building the wooden structure of the camera. In March we held a workshop for Flatpack and had a window installation of mini camera obscuras at Home Deli.


In late April we received the finished wooden sections from Carpenter Matt. In May we posted a callout to artists to get involved with the camera obscura and were delighted with the response. In June we took the camera out to Digbeth First Friday and setup by the canal. This was a test run as it wasn’t quite finished, but great to get out in public again.

flatpack workshop thurs 1020150605_181447


Outings outings outings.

July 4th: CoCoMad

July 3-12th: Moseley Festival. Installation of two miniature camera obscuras in the garden at Maison Mayci for the duration of the festival.

July 18th: Jewellery Quarter Festival.

Aug 18th & 19th: Kirkby workshops

Aug 29th: Moseley Bog with Birmingham & Black Country Wildlife Trust

September 1st: Stirchley Community Market


October 10th: Winterbourne House and Gardens

October 17th: Highbury Harvest

In October we made our first official school visit, to Lyndon in Solihull, and it was ace. Speaking of ace, we also received confirmation of Arts Council funding in October, supporting a 6 month R&D process over the winter months with our 5 chosen artists.


So what does 2016 hold?

  • Workshops and other collaborations with Winterbourne House and Gardens
  • The artistic outcomes of the artist R&D with our famous five.
  • Workshops and an exhibition of the artists’ process at Bom
  • Workshop and involvement with Warwick Arts Centre
  • Capture Birmingham


See you next year!

Jenny and Pete

Art Obscura

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.


Highbury Harvest: last official outing this year

Last weekend, Oct 17th we went to Highbury Harvest at Highbury Park, Kings Heath. As it turns out, this was the last Camera Obscura public outing this year. The event had a lovely community atmosphere and we were situated right by the main path where footfall was good, as people were moving towards the 'main event'.


We also tried something a bit different, we had the mini camera obscuras with us anyway as they were still in the car from our school visit, so we decided to hang them in the trees nearby. This worked out as a great way to demonstrate the way that the camera obscura works in a simpler way on a smaller scale, and away from the crowd.


It was a bit gloomy, although dry, at first, but for a few hours mid afternoon we had some glorious autumnal blue sunshine.




Thanks to the organisers of this event for inviting us along after seeing us in the Jewellery Quarter!

This is the last public outing for the Camera Obscura this year, so if you know of any event happening next year which we should attend, then please get in touch!


School Visit to Lyndon School Solihull

Last Wednesday we visited Lyndon School in Solihull to show their students the Camera Obscura.

This was the result of a conversation we had over the summer at CoCoMad, with Mr Spurr, a teacher at the school who took a shine to the device when he saw it at the family festival. Although we've had a lot of different conversations about going into schools, this was the first that actually came to fruition..

We ended up showing the device to several different classes: Year 7 Science, Year 7 History, Year 9 Art & Design and GCSE Photography. We gave a short talk about the project and camera obscuras, and then let the students see for themselves, whilst their classmates waved through the camera.

A fantastic day @lyndonschool with @BhamObscura exploring #photography origins & concepts #light #cameras #images A photo posted by Mr Spurr @LyndonSwitch (@lyndonswitch) on

It was really interesting seeing the different reactions from a ranges of students and hearing the questions that they came up with for us.

We had some great feedback from the staff, and one of the students even said 'This is actually good'  so we count that as a success!

The schools offer is one of many things we are hoping to develop as part of the Arts Council Funding we had confirmation of last week so this will hopefully be the first of many.


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.



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!

Historical Obscura

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.


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


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.)