Early one summer’s morning when I was a child, I saw a fuzzy image of my border collies on my bedroom ceiling. They were outside in the yard and their image was being projected through a tiny gap in the curtains from the sunlight reflected off the flagstones; I had my very own camera obscura.
It’s believed that this effect was known about back in Neolithic times, and it is not hard to imagine a tiny crack in a cave, or a hole in a tent cover acting like a pinhole camera projecting an image onto an opposite surface. The moving, distorted pictures must have seemed like magic. Perhaps these distorted images inspired the elongated figures seen in cave paintings.
The first written accounts of the camera obscura date back to China in 400 BCE and there have been mention of them in records ever since. Aristotle and Euclid; Al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham; Anthemius of Tralles and other great minds from around the world and throughout history experimented with them. (If you want to experience one, The Camera Obscura in Edinburgh is well worth a visit if you get a chance.)
Fascinated by their history, a long while ago I made my very first attempt at a digital pinhole camera. We had made these in science lessons at school using a shoe box with a pinhole at one end and film at the other; the results were not very successful. I drilled a hole in a body cap and stuck some black duct tape over the hole, puncturing the tape with a needle. I then attached the cap on the body of an old DSLR. With that unsophisticated setup I managed to capture this blurry image.
Of course, some people create far more precise versions of pinhole digital cameras using foil instead of duct tape and being accurate about the size of their apertures. I was quite happy with this rough and ready method in my experiment.
On Friday I went with a couple of my clients to see an art exhibition a few miles down the road. There was a mixture of media including some photography. It was an interesting exercise discovering how our tastes vary enormously. This is why I never judge photography competitions, though I am asked.
A photo can tick all sorts of boxes technically, but that does not make it a great image. Look at Eve Arnold’s classic shot of Marilyn Monroe from 1955 depicting the film star in a wash room, or Henri Cartier Bresson’ s famous Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare , or Robert Capa’s images of the Omaha Beach D-Day landings. They are all great images, but none are technically perfect.
Of course it’s a good idea to learn how composition works and the interaction of various camera settings to achieve the exposure we seek. But putting the technicalities aside, whether the image appeals to me or not is purely subjective and I might prefer an out-of-focus, wonky shot than a precise one.
During the Renaissance, artists drew around the shapes thus projected on paper and canvas. Leonardo da Vinci frowned upon this. He used a camera obscura for demonstrations, but also warned against the temptation of mimesis. He wrote that bad artists set out to copy nature, while a true artist knows how to invent from their own imagination.
Does that opinion sit comfortably with photography today? The majority of photos are a very close approximation of reality – they are what the photographer perceived when he took the shot. Would da Vinci consider that to be art? For some photographers, trying to accurately reproduce reality is all important. For them, mimesis is perfection.
Others find images compelling when they are more than just a record of what was seen. Setting their cameras to produce particular effects and exploiting environmental conditions such as darkness or fog, their images change from being a precise record to something imaginative and creative.
Chiaroscuro, using strong tonal contrasts to emphasise light and dark; exceptionally fast or slow shutter value; a very narrow or long depth of field and unusual camera positions all involve another creative step beyond the conventional photograph and produce results the eye cannot otherwise perceive.
A further stage of creating photographic art is in the developing and editing of photos to look the way we want.
To achieve consistently great results once required learning some quite complex skills. However, now we can add digital effect filters in the camera or with just a single click on a smart phone and produce really good-looking pictures; automation replacing manual skills.
Editing brings controversy. Shouts of disdain can be heard about altering photos and some purists don’t believe we should not edit at all. Then retaliatory cries of snobbery come from photographers who enjoy producing images with lots of saturation, cartoon noses or swirly impressionist effects.
Guard against those prescribing what you must or must not do in photography. It’s your art. If you like what you produce, then that’s great. If someone else likes it, then that’s even more rewarding. When someone doesn’t like your work, then that’s their problem not yours. All that really matters is that you enjoy your photography, so keep on clicking whatever and however you like.
Please feel free to comment. It would be great to hear about your experiences of the camera obscura and especially if you have created pinhole cameras. Also, what sort of images do you and don’t you like?
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