What is the one thing you need most in order to take photographs?
For the first half of this term, seven weeks in all, both GCSE and AS students have been creating images entirely without the use of a camera. Sophisticated and expensive digital equipment has been rejected in favour of old cardboard boxes and black duct tape. Card, curtains, and light-sensitive paper. Red lights in the darkroom and trays of chemicals.
To begin with, students were drawn to the technique of making photograms, as pioneered by artists such as Man Ray and explored by contemporaries like Adam Fuss and Susan Derges, who made hers outdoors in the moonlight. Students investigated techniques and invented their own; submerging the light sensitive paper in water, adding inks, using a flashlight, and even painting or spraying the chemicals rather than keeping them in the trays. Only a week into the course and all students had a pile of exciting and highly individual work which would form the basis of their investigation into portraiture and identity.
Now familiar with the properties and alchemy of the darkroom, the students’ next task was to make a camera of their own. This required a cardboard box, a small square of thin aluminium, and a pin. Pinhole cameras work by letting in light through a tiny pinhole on the side of a box, with the image of the outside world projected onto light-sensitive paper inside. The interior had to be completely black (the students painted the inside of their boxes with matt black paint), the paper ‘loaded’ into the box under the red safe light of the darkroom, before being taken outside and pointed at a subject of their choice.
“What?” Would be a common, and understandable response to the explaination of how it worked. So what better way than to make a pinhole camera big enough for the students to stand inside and see it in action? ‘Camera obscura’ is Latin for ‘dark room’, and that is exactly what we used, with the students blacking out the windows of a classroom with just a tiny circle left open for the outside world to stream in, and project itself onto the walls inside. Pure magic (explained by physics), with the most exciting part being the ability to watch people outside move in ‘real time’, their projected images walking across the walls and ceiling.
In keeping with the theme of the term, Portraiture and Identity, the students were given the task to test out their pinhole cameras and before taking self-portraits. Thus the ‘pinhole selfie’ was born.
Armed with all the knowledge they now need regarding exposure, focal distances, and darkroom printing, photography students are now fully prepared for the next stage of the course: using a camera.
*The answer to the first question is light.