Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Handcrafted Creativity


I've had a particularly satisfying time in the last week engaged in one of my main creative outlets, which is pinhole photography. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has taken the time to peruse these writings, or visit one of the links on the right side of this page.

I have been continually sketching, for years now, ideas for new cameras. This, too, should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well. I have filled notebooks full with such sketchings, wherein I find it's an effective way to work out the theoretical and technical problems prior to the start of any real project's construction.

What I have been sketching lately are ideas for what I have come to term 'Carousel Cameras'. In general terms, these are a subset of a larger classification of cameras that permit distant operation, using multiple large format negatives loaded in some sort of mechanism, but without the aid of conventional sheet film holders.

My disdain of the conventional sheet film holder is for two reasons: first, their use deviates from the 'DIY' ethic of hand-crafted photography. Second, in larger sizes (5"x7" and larger) they can be prohibitively expensive.

I have explored two other general classifications of camera mechanisms prior to working on the Carousel Camera: the first was the so-called Falling Plate Camera, which uses film plates stacked up in the rear of the camera like LP jackets in an old stereo system. A mechanism permits the front holder to fall face-down into the bottom of the camera enclosure, revealing the next film plate in the stack. This design has proven to be a workable solution, but has several problems still needing solution, the main being that the camera is sensitive to being turned upside down during transit, since the film plates that have already fallen are merely resting on the camera's floor, and are not secured in any way. Also, such a design rules out wide angles of view, because the projection distance of the camera's pinhole lens needs to be longer than the height of the film plates, in order to permit them to fall properly.

I've also worked with Paper Rollfilm Cameras as another solution to taking multiple large format negatives out into the shooting environment. This system uses photo paper exclusively, by being cut into 4" wide strips, and wound into a film roll along with a black backing strip of light-tight paper. The rear surface of the black paper has frame numbers, visible through a rear viewing window, that align to the centers of each negative. In practice, this system functions as a large format version of 120 medium format film. This, too, has its problems in practice, the principle one being that the resulting paper negatives end up being rather severely curled, due to their having been wrapped around film spools. And it takes a while to load the film in the camera: each section needs to be carefully cut, in the darkroom, from larger sheets of paper, and carefully aligned and assembled into a straight strip, then carefully taped in alignment to the paper backing strip. It is also imperative that the frame numbers align properly to the centers of each negative. However, once properly loaded, these large rollfilm cameras can hold tremendous amounts of film; my newest model had (prior to its being lost in an around-the-world camera swap) the capacity to hold 24 exposures. Their non-interference design also permits wide angles of view, along with curved film planes, if that is desired.

So, why then the Carousel Camera? I have found two other camera systems that seem to fit the bill, as it were; why invest time in another design? Curiosity, of course, is a major motivator. But the prototype Carousel Camera was fashioned from an empty cookie tin. It seemed a shame to discard such a container, considering its photographic possibilities. Second, once I began sketching ideas for a rotary film changing carousel, it seemed like an entirely new design concept, one worthy of further exploration.

One only needs to be reminded of the Kodak carousel slide projector mechanism, to know that this is not an entirely original idea. But the manner in which a workable large format camera would use the carousel concept is more like the way those old penny arcade animated 'flip book' machines worked: a horizontal spindle loaded with film frames in the form of individual paper prints. The operation of such machines resembled what we now know today as the Rolodex, except they operated on a vertical axis, rather than the Rolodex’s horizontal axis.

My prototype Carousel Camera had four vanes, in the shape of an "X", which rotated about a vertical axis via a light-tight connection through the lid of the cookie tin, to an operating and indicating handle. The size of the cookie tin was such that the film format was restricted to 3"x4". In order to make the volume of the cookie tin fit as many negatives as possible, I soon saw the possibility of loading film on both sides of the carousel vanes, giving the camera the capacity for eight negatives. This, however, necessitated a major design innovation, which was a pair of pinhole apertures installed in the sides of the cookie tin, with baffles intended to keep the light from one pinhole from fogging the adjacent negative within the same carousel quadrant.

In practice, this first Carousel Camera worked fine, except the baffles were a constant problem, as they tended to obstruct and vignette the corners of the images. In such a design, rotational accuracy is critical. Over-rotation of the carousel can result in the intended negative not being exposed correctly, and the neighboring, adjacent negative being fogged. The curved surface of the cylindrical cookie tin also made for some degree of complexity in the building of the pinhole mounts.

Therefore, I had intended to build any follow-on Carousel Camera into a dedicated square wooden box, which would be fashioned exactly and precisely for this intended purpose, and would be large enough to permit the use of 4"x5" media. Instead, I came upon a tall cylindrical popcorn canister, and once again I was back at it.

This time the design involves a four-vane carousel that is higher than it is wide, which allows two levels or decks to be used. One pinhole is used to expose the four negatives of the upper deck, with another pinhole used for the lower deck. This time, however, the negatives are installed between the angles of the "X"-shaped vanes with the bend in the film towards the center of the carousel, and the film facing out towards the edge of the canister. This permits 4"x5" film to be installed in an enclosure much smaller than ten inches across, and also gives a wide angle of view onto a curved film plane. Having eight exposures thus loaded into this new camera gives one the possibility of distant, extended operation, much like the falling plate or rollfilm designs, but without the failings of either one.

Of course, this new camera is a 'work in progress', as they say; which means that it still has bugs to be worked out. For one, the turning of the carousel is a bit rough, and second I'm still messing with light baffles in the top section, in an attempt at preventing stray light, leaking in from the lid, from fogging the film while still allowing the film an unobstructing view through the pinhole aperture.

My excitement this week comes from some of the images I have made with this new camera. The two pinholes fashioned into the camera seem to be of high quality, and the short projection length, combined with the curved film plane, gives some very interesting perspectives.

I've also had the opportunity to review my camera building ventures, because f295.org has started a new 'call for uploads', this time the theme being home built cameras and the images they've made. I sat down and compiled a list of all my cameras, and found to my surprise that I had digitized images of all of them, already in the computer. It was necessary, prior to upload, to resize all these camera portraits, along with their respective images, such that each pair would fit within the 100k upload limit.

Reviewing my personal history of fashioning cameras from found and raw materials, using unique mechanical designs, reveals how this has been as satisfying as the picture making itself. Best of all is when a new and clever design proves to be capable of rendering exquisite images. When these two come together - the creation of new images through the aegis of a newly created mechanism - I am thoroughly and intensely satisfied.~

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~Joe

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