Prototype Portable Camera Obscura

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For the forthcoming Birmingham Architecture Festival, on May 24th Jenny Duffin and I will be wheeling a large camera obscura around Birmingham city centre which people can view the city through. It’s something we’ve been talking about doing for a few months and it’s actually going to happen. We just need to build it.

The project is, at this stage, completely self funded. We did tout the idea around a bit but nobody seemed interested in paying us to build a giant mobile camera, and understandably since we had nothing except an idea and a very bad sketch. So we shrunk the budget, lowered the expectations, and built a 1 meter cube on stilts, stuck a sheet of tracing paper over the bottom, covered it in blackout plastic and fixed a lens at the top.

It’s surprisingly hard to photograph it since it’s really just a black box. Here are some production photos, after which I’ll talk a bit more about the process.

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It was a very iterative process. I realised, not for the first time, that my diagrams might show how something should look but failed miserably to show how they might work. I am not an engineer and my respect for engineers grows with every attempt to build something.

The original plan was to have the viewer lie on the floor under the box and look at the image projected onto the screen. While this rear-projection idea is interesting it didn’t prove that practical, especially for testing the focus, so we cut a slit in the top next to the lens to look into the box itself. With an old parka hood for lightproofing this turned out to be much better, so we’re probably sticking with that.

The other issue was the 45 degree mirror. I sourced cheap acrylic mirror tiles on eBay but the image refused to focus. A visitor suggested it might work with a proper mirror, so I grabbed the bathroom one. It worked much better, though Fi won’t let me use it as it’s apparently a nice mirror. But in the process we started liking the simplicity of just pointing the lens at the subject on its own, so we might get rid of the mirror altogether. Except I just bought an £8 glass mirror from the mighty Latifs and it works, so we’ll see.

A final unexpected issue was the focal point. All the literature about lens-based camera obscuras talks about the lens focussing on the screen at a particular distance inversely proportional to its diopter (our +1 diopter lens focusses at a metre, a +4 diopter (similar to most cheap magnifying glasses, it seems) focusses at 25cm) but none of it talks about where the focal point of the subject itself might be.

It turns out our lens has a focal point of 20 metres, give or take. This might explain why all the camera obscura I’ve seen are a long way away from their subjects, up towers or on cliffs. Anything too close with fall out of focus very fast. This might be an issue when we’re wheeling this thing around at ground level. Or it could just be a feature!

But we’re happy with the current iteration - a box with a lens and a screen which creates an image people can look at. Here are a couple of photos taken by resting my iphone inside the camera. It’s not accurate (high ISO noise and long exposure blur) but it proves it works.

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To do:
- Get some wheels and make it mobile.
- Devise an adjustable fixing for the new mirror.
- Create side banners saying “Duffin and Ashton’s Superlative Camera Obscura” in a Victorian sideshow style so it looks a little less like a big square binbag. Any offers? Can pay with pizza and beer.

The box will be roaming around Birmingham City Centre pointing at key buildings on Saturday May 24th as part of the Birmingham Architecture Festival - check their Twitter for locations on the day.

More details to come, along with our long term plans for this project, of which we have many…

New Art-Walks in Birmingham this Spring

Summary: My new walks start this Sunday. Book here.

As many of you will be tired of hearing, I’m still digging myself out of the ideas pile that fell of me last year thanks to my Grants For The Arts award. It’s nearly over, though. Here’s the end-game.

  • A book about what I did, what I discovered and what I learned. Not a massive book but certainly a few chapters. This is the “exhibition” and will be released via Leanpub once it’s finished, hopefully in April.
  • An artwork based on the photos that were taken. I have a pretty good idea about what this might look like but am keeping it under wraps for now. Again, April.
  • A package of photography-based workshops and walks which can be offered by arts and culture organisations, integrated into their general offer. This is the bit where I become a resource to the arts industry in my region, paying back the Arts Council’s investment. I just need to write this up, so maybe this week but probably April.
  • A brand new series of eight walks developing the experiments in 2013 into a coherent package resulting a new work.

The new walks start on Sunday and are being run through Photo School. You can buy tickets and read my description of them there.

One of the big disappointments with the walks last autumn was how few “normal people” they attracted. Because Photo School does well on Google, a significant number of people who come to the classes and walks are not from my word-of-mouth circle and the mix of people I know and people I’d probably never meet otherwise is a great thing.

Despite being sold through Photo School, the November walks didn’t get my usual mix of people. I knew nearly everyone who came on them and many were from the art/culture community. Which was great from the sense of showing the world in which I wish to work what I do, but not so great for the work.

I think the reason for this is the word “Art”. The culture wars in this country have loaded it with meaning, both positive and negative, and it can make people feel uncomfortable, or at the very least provide a small barrier to bothering.

I was in somewhat uncharted territory, running events directly funded by the Arts Council, and one of the requirements was that people be made aware they’re participating in “an artwork”. I didn’t have a problem with this, but maybe I pushed it a bit too much. I also didn’t think about why people came on my walks. Their reasons would be myriad but they probably wouldn’t be about helping me develop my art practice.

With these new walks my artistic approach is finely attuned. I’ve done the research, thought the thinks and gathered inspiration from other artists. I’ll be doing LOADS of art on the walks and that’s what makes my walks unique to me.

But I’m not selling them as art. They’re Photo Walks with an emphasis on an educational, enjoyable experience exploring the city with cameras. I bring my artistic nous as a service but it doesn’t dominate. The overriding context is photography. Any art is a byproduct and a bonus.

Interestingly this isn’t a problem when I work for someone like the Ikon where they’re employing me as an artist. If anything I have to hide the teachy side and push the Hero Artist stuff. It’s all about context.

So, to summarise:

  • I’m producing a new work this Spring / Summer.

  • It will exist as a series of eight walks and a single piece of work informed by the walks. (digital/physical/other).
  • Participants will be recruited through Photo School.
  • It builds on and continues my research from the last 6 months.

If you’d like to come on one or more of the walks, book now!

Slitscan Selfies 2

The process of compiling my Typologies of Hypernetworked Vernacular Self-Portraiture film for Flatpack next week involved proved rather fruitful. The culmination was supposed to be the animation of similar selfies with the eyes aligned but during the edit it occurred to me to pass that clip through the Slit Scan app. The results were rather nice.

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So I spent a while trying different slitscan directions in different sequences. I’ve compiled the results into this video:

Due to the nature of video compression the effect isn’t always that clear via YouTube/Vimeo so I’ve put a relatively uncompressed version on Dropbox which you should download and watch on your computer to see each pixel. Be warned, it’s 500mb.

I’ve also put the individual clips in this Vimeo set.

This, where I extracted the horizontal slitscan frames, randomised the sequence of the filenames, recompiled the video and then passed it through a vertical slitscan, is probably the one that would work best in a gallery setting:

These are based on 200 photos where the subject is looking at the camera.

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I have 75,000 photos that have been tagged #seflie on Instagram. The next stage will be to align another 200 different photos and see if the same face appears.

I also, in an uncharacteristic desire to create a physical thing, got some postcards made. I have 350 of these things threatening to gather dust. If you’d like a few, let me know.


Typologies of Hypernetworked Vernacular Self-Portraiture premiers at The Magic Cinema, part of the Flatpack Film Festival, on Wed 26th March and at The Best Of Magic Cinema on Saturday 29th March.


Today was the launch of the first stage of Rich White‘s Viaduct, a study of the derelict Duddeston Railway Viaduct in Digbeth which was never used and has been sitting there, like a monolithic bluebrick slug, since 1846.

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This stage of the project consisted of Rich recording conversations with various people as he walked around the base of the viaduct, conversations which he then edited into a single dialogue printed in a newspaper. (I have copies of the newspaper if you want one.)

I was one of the people who Rich took on a walk. I quickly forgot he was recording me and when I got the transcript I was delighted at how I came across. He really managed to get the good stuff out of my brain.

I asked Rich if I could use the unedited transcript of my walk and he said fine, so here it is. Thanks again to Rich for the opportunity and to Trevor Pitt and A3 Project Space for putting us together. Here’s to part two of the project!

Continue reading Viaduct

Interviewed at Imperica

As part of speaking at Bees In A Tin about my photo walks last month, I was interviewed along with Holly Gramazio for Imperica, an online magazines for digital arts and stuff. I feared I was rambling a load of old nonsense but it all came out rather well, I think. Thanks to Paul Squires for enabling coherence.

A sample:

How does the appreciation of a given space change over time? How is a new appreciation sought, and how do your own views help to build a re-interpretation of what public space is or could be?

PA: I’m a big fan of returning to the same place over time, and it always disappoints me that when someone has come on one of my routes, they don’t feel the need to come on it again. Over-enthusiastic planners aside, cities don’t suddenly change. It’s a gradual process of entropy, decay, maintenance and redevelopment. Every time I walk through Birmingham I see a new building, or a changed building. Something burns down, somewhere else is given a new lease of life. Every day life happens in the city and it leaves a mark. These marks accumulate, and the story of the city is told.

Revisiting a given space is more than seeing the same place over and over. It’s a different place each time. My interpretation of it is unique to me. There are a million Birminghams, one for each person who lives here, not to mention all those who visit. Each is as valid as the other. We make our own sense of place. I guess that this is why private ownership of apparently public spaces, while interesting, doesn’t overly concern me. We make the city in our own way, regardless of what the “owners” want. Dhruva Mistry’s fountain-sculpture The River isn’t called The River. It’s called The Floozie in the Jacuzzi and there’s nothing Mistry can do about it.