Update: Stretch goal 2 reached! Now aiming for £2,500!
There are camera obscuras all around the world but not in Birmingham – the second biggest city in the UK.
We want to fix that.
We are Jenny Duffin and Pete Ashton, two photographer/artists from Birmingham. We have a five-year plan to build lots of camera obscuras in the city.
To start that process we built a portable prototype out of random stuff, which we took out in Birmingham to see what people thought. They liked it a lot!
Now we want to make a better camera with more features, one that will be a lasting resource for Birmingham and for people to learn about this simple machine that is the forefather of the modern camera.
We want the camera to belong to Birmingham, which is why we’ve opted for Kickstarter. There are rewards but the main one is that the city will finally have its own camera obscura, one on wheels which can go anywhere.
If this Kickstarter is successful, we’ll start building it in January and have it ready for the spring, along with a full programme of events and appearances throughout the region. You will see the camera all over the place.
Hundreds of people have stuck their heads in our magic box and come out smiling. We want hundreds of thousands to have the same experience. And we need your help to do it.
We’ve put loads of information on this page and more on our website. If you have any questions at all please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.
What we need money for
Our prototype was a very simple box with a hole into which you stuck your head. We want the new camera obscura to be something one or two people can actually get inside, to have a focusing mechanism, for the mirror to rotate, for people to be able to draw and make photos and films inside it, and for it to look amazing. We also want to be able to move it around without the wheels falling off. And it will still be small enough to go anywhere.
Materials: The camera will essentially be a sturdy wooden box with a lens/mirror mechanism fixed to the top. We plan on building this from scratch with the best quality materials we can afford.
Lens: The 2014 current camera obscura uses a mediocre £10 magnifying lens. We want to buy a professional lens to give a crisp, bright image.
Carpenter: We are artists and photographers not carpenters. It would be good to hire a professional to give advice and make some of the tricky bits. We have two or three people in mind with the skills and the right creative sensibility.
Decoration: We'd like to pay a professional graphic designer to make it look so awesome that people have to try it.
The Kickstarter does not include paying us for our time. We will get that from other sources (see below). All money raised via Kickstarter will be spent on the camera obscura.
If we reach the minimum we can build a great camera. If we raise more then we can make it really amazing by buying better materials and hiring professionals. We've broken down what we can do into £500 Stretch Goals but there really is no limit. More money = more awesome.
Why should you help?
Because in the long term the permanent camera obscura we want to build will belong to the people of Birmingham.
The Birmingham Camera Obscura will be run as a business which will eventually pay us a part-time wage. This is important as it ensures we are able to spend as much time on it as possible. So why should you pay for the thing we're going to earn money from?
Our five-year plan is for there to be a permanent camera obscura in a building in Birmingham, one which reflects the history and future of the city, and is a valuable educational and artistic resource, as well as a fun place to visit. We don't want this to be privately controlled so we'll probably establish some kind of 'trust' with the remit that everyone in the city will 'own' it in some way.
This portable camera is on the road to that goal, and as such it has also to belong to the people. We're not ready to set up a trust, but having the camera itself entirely funded by the Kickstarter, and nothing else, will keep us ethically on track.
Fundamentally, when you see the camera out and about in Birmingham, and see the smiles of the people using it, you can say: "I made that happen."
So what is a Camera Obscura?
Like the best things in life, the camera obscura is very simple. Light enters through a hole in the top of the camera and is focused on a screen on the bottom. But unlike a modern camera, the camera obscura does not create an image you can take away. You see the image by being inside the camera itself.
Camera obscura is Latin for "Dark Room" and they have existed in various forms for over three thousand years, though the process was first scientifically outlined by Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) circa 1000AD and formalised during the European Enlightenment as lenses improved.
Then, in the Victorian era, they became attractions, often found in seaside resorts and on country estates.
The process is very simple but the effect is strangely magical. Seeing the world projected onto a flat surface while inside the machine itself is a delightful experience which never fails to bring a smile.
Why, in our image-saturated world, people seem to love it is the big question and we don't really know the answer. Maybe it's the isolation of the dark chamber. Maybe it evokes that amazement people must have had when, for the first time, they were able to see an accurate 2D rendering of reality – something we take for granted these days.
This flatness was picked up by artists and architects who used the camera obscura as a tool to get perspective and reflections correct. (David Hockney did some great research into this.) This is why we want to have a drawing desk integrated into our camera.
Above all the camera obscura is the grandfather of the modern camera. From the high-end DSLR to the tiny cameraphone, all cameras work in the same way. Seeing this process scaled up to 'giant sized' by the camera obscura helps us understand today's cameras and other optical technologies that are such an important part of modern life. Essentially, they're all just boxes with holes.
Rewards in more detail
The main reward will be seeing the camera gloriously realised but if you want to take something home, we have some rewards.
Cup of tea. Anyone can visit us at BomLab during the build but only Kickstarter backers will be offered a cup of tea or coffee on the house! (Made by us in the kitchen, not from the cafe.)
Name on website. Our site, bhamobscura.com, documents our project and is aiming to be the chief resource for camera obscura knowledge on the internet. We shall list the names of everyone who backs this Kickstarter on a special page for as long as this project is going.
Stickers. Designed by Birmingham artist Gareth Courage these stickers will look great on your laptop / skateboard / fridge / bumper / locker. Delivered in January.
Wooden plaque. Inside the camera obscura will be a small plaque featuring the names of everyone who contributed £10 or more to the build, rather like the plaques you see in the lobbies of publicly funded buildings. It will be laser-etched on nice quality wood.
Poster. An A3 poster by Gareth Courage printed on heavy stock paper. Posted in a tube (or pick up from BomLab if you visit us during the build).
Mini camera obscura. The little hand-held camera obscura is very popular and, having looked into importing them in bulk, we've decided to design and make our own in Birmingham. These reward cameras will be special editions, though, featuring stylistic flourishes and the supporter's name, made possible by us laser-cutting each one individually. Approx dimensions: 30x10x10cm delivered late spring 2015.
A series of negative prints of Birmingham architecture. The camera obscura can be turned into a 'normal' camera simply by putting something light-senstive inside and controlling the exposure. We plan to experiment with this by placing photographic paper inside the new camera and pointing it at Birmingham landmarks. The result will be a set of 4 or more negative prints, similar to those made in a shoebox pinhole camera. Please be aware we have no idea exactly how this might turn out but we do know it'll be interesting! Delivered summer 2015.
Photo walk in Birmingham. When he's not obsessing over the camera obscura with Jenny, Pete runs Photo School through which he does tuition and photo walks. This reward gives you Pete's expertise in this area for two hours one afternoon. You can book him for a group of friends or for a one-on-one tuition session. Maybe you want advice on using your camera, or want to improve your composition, or just visually explore the back streets of Birmingham. It's up to you. Available from January. Suitable for beginners and intermediates.
Turn your room into a camera. We will come to a room of your choosing, back out the windows and project the view onto the opposite wall. We'll then take a long-exposure photo of that view for you to print and frame if you so wish. There are a number of criteria to deliver this. 1) It must be your room, or a room you have express permission to use. 2) It must be in Birmingham or nearby, or we'll charge extra for travel / time. 3) There must be a suitable, well lit, view. 4) We must have full access to the room for a whole day. 5) There must be a reasonable number of windows to cover (no greenhouses!) 6) We need a lot of sunlight so can only do this between late Spring and early Autumn. 7) There might be other things to consider. Please do contact us first to check your room is suitable.
The camera obscura at your event. We will be hiring the camera out to festivals and events, and this gives you a chance to get us cheap while supporting the build. Jenny and/or Pete will be on hand to help people use and understand the camera, and we can make digital photos and video of your event as seen inside it. This offer is limited to the Birmingham / Black Country / Coventry area but we'll consider further afield if you cover the costs!
What we have covered
We will be basing the project at Birmingham Open Media (BomLab), a new space for art, technology and science in central Birmingham. As contributing members of BomLab we will have use of co-working and studio space to design and build the camera. This will also be open to the public to visit during the build so you can come visit us and offer help and advice or just watch us work. In short, we don't have to worry about rent for the next year.
We're investing a lot of time in this project and our wages will come from income generated from camera obscura related events in 2015. While we will often take the camera out for free to promote the project, we will sometimes charge festivals and events to host the camera and use that income to allow us to spend more time on the project. We will also be developing workshops and classes to take into schools and other educational settings.
We are putting in an application for the Arts Council Grants For The Arts award to cover the development of the project into a viable service for the cultural sector. If successful this will cover a programme of events through the summer enabling us to get the camera out even more, including developing an educational resource to take into schools.
While the funding is important to develop a sustainable business, we feel it's essential that funding for the camera itself comes purely through this Kickstarter, plus other donations of time and equipment during the build. It might sound hokey but there's a nice purity to the notion that it belongs in some way to the Birmingham people.
What we did in 2014
Before we decided to build a camera obscura we were turning whole rooms into cameras. We started off with one of the apartments on the top floor of the Rotunda and then converted the Old Joint Stock Theatre into one.
The first portable camera obscura met the public in June for the Digbeth First Friday and later the National Photography Symposium at Birmingham Library. In July Pete got married, which put the brakes on, but in August we were very much out and about going to Warwick Bar Summer Fete, Coventry's Festival of the Imagineers and a Flatpack screening at the MAC.
September saw us at the Moseley Folk Festival and in October we were at Birmingham Museum and the REP for the Fun Palaces weekend. The camera will have its final outing for the Eye Candy Festival in Digbeth in November.
As well as seeing what the public thought, we were also keen to introduce the camera to those in the arts and culture sector, where we both work, to develop partnerships and potential income. This is vital to ensuring the project is sustainable over the long term and we feel we've made great strides in this direction.
We've had conversations, formal and informal, with theatre, photography and fine art people about using the underlying technologies of the camera obscura in new and interesting ways. For example, we're currently thinking about curved mirrors and how they could be used to project images of actors on a stage. We also have plans to turn a canal boat into a floating camera obscura.
Here's some more video from inside the camera.
Taking people's money to make something is a huge responsibility, which we're very aware of.
We have already been documenting our work with the 2014 camera on the bhamobscura.com blog and Twitter and will continue to do so, making sure everyone invested in this project can see what's going on. We will not vanish for months leaving you in the dark.
We will publish accounts of how the money from the Kickstarter is spent, from the lens mechanics to the screws, on the website. Receipts will be available for inspection.
We will be based at BomLab, a new arts space in Birmingham which is open to the public, working on the project at least one day a week. We'll publish our schedule and you will be able to visit us and see how we're getting on. We'll also have occasional 'open studio' days where we'll formally present what we've been up to.
About Jenny and Pete
Jenny Duffin and Pete Ashton met in 2013 while running a pinhole photography workshop together. They got on well and somehow found themselves blacking out a room on the top floor of the Rotunda to turn it into a giant camera. This kinda cemented their working relationship. While there's a lot of overlap on this Birmingham Obscura project, Jenny and Pete try to divide the work according to their strengths.
Jenny is an independent creative producer who is relatively early on in her career in arts and events management in Birmingham. This year she was the director of the Birmingham Architecture Festival and programmed an extensive series of events for Birmingham Loves Photographers alongside regular work for Creative Alliance. More about Jenny's work on her website, jennyduffin.com.
Jenny is in charge of programming, which means she ensures the camera gets out as much as possible to as many people as possible, while still being a viable, sustainable operation. She also reins Pete in when he gets a bit carried away.
Pete is an artist and photographer with a background in self-publishing and DIY media. He was a zine publisher in the '90s, a blogger since 2000 and an early adopter of social media. Alongside this project his main venture is Photo School, an independent operation where he teaches beginners photography and leads photo walks around Birmingham. Information about Pete's activities can be found via peteashton.com
Pete is in charge of the artistic stuff, channelling an interest in the fundamentals of cameras and photography into the project. He wants to use the camera obscura in new ways and build cameras that push this technology to the limits. He also reins Jenny in when she gets carried away.
Risks and challenges
Can we build this?
We managed to make a functioning camera which went out in public a dozen or so times in 2014. We've learned how to do stuff along the way and realised our limitations. We've also met many people with useful knowledge and contacts who can help. We feel confident we can produce a decent camera in 2015.
We have both dedicated at least one day a week for this project from January 2015 to build the camera and develop the programme of events. This should be ample to deliver on time.
Getting the camera out there.
Jenny's expertise as a producer will ensure we deliver a solid programme of events over 2015 to get the camera out there on a regular basis. We have already built up a strong network of organisations and partners interested in working with the camera and intend for this to grow over the development period.
A lot of our freelance work is working with or for the sorts of events that we'd like to take the camera obscura to, so we are comfortable with the showmanship side of getting the camera out there (as opposed to making Kickstarter videos!)Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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