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Camera Obscura Selfie, by David White

1 April 2019

This is the second ever camera obscura selfie. The first one is not so pretty; it’s just me on a chair, grinning. This picture was taken via the iPad in my hand, through a 5m x 3m portable camera obscura. This mk1 obscura used a 2800mm lens to project an image onto a 8'x6' screen inside. The image was focused by moving the screen, which is made from a translucent, flexible rear projection screen. A Canon DSLR, controlled by my iPad and a Canon app, photographed the screen inside the obscura. In this picture I am seeing how far the wi-fi generated by the Canon DSLR will stretch. I took this picture about three years ago.

This was the first time I had tested the practicalities of the beast. It all went into my van, but it weighed too much, was way too unwieldy, and was a pain to put up and take down alone. Or with help for that matter. Plus when the wind got up it became a total liability, and it nearly had me in the local creek once. It also looked a bit unattractive...basically a huge white lightproof tent. People really enjoyed entering the obscura however, and my students seemed amazed by what was going on inside, which I found surprising and joyful at the same time. They took great relish in photographing themselves and their friends with it. I learned some clear lessons with regards to what I needed to do for the Mark 2 version however.

This obscura used a lens, rather than a pinhole, so as to allow an image bright enough to be photographed from inside. The image thrown onto the screen is brilliant enough to allow the use of a mobile phone, which is important. Whatever camera you use allows you to capture the unique fingerprint which the obscura delivers. It took a long time to find a lens which covered a large enough circle and which had a wide enough angle of view, and which was fast/bright enough. In the end I found the 2800mm lens, and another 4000mm lens on ebay USA. The latter lens is fantastic but made it virtually impossible to fit inside the 5m long obscura when focused. When the obscura is used as a selfie camera, the photographer is also the copyright holder, so they own the image and can share it and distribute it however they like, which I think is lovely and helps deliver an important lesson.

After proving that my concept worked, I made another obscura. Instead of using scaffold poles and welding the focus frame, as I had done initially, I started with a fold up gazebo frame and some aluminium sections. The mk2 obscura is 2m x 2m, and uses an 800mm lens, which was hand ground for me by an ultra large format specialist in the states. He made me the lens for $400, which is incredible. The lens covers a 1.5m circle and has an angle of view equivalent to a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera. It has a square screen which is a nod to Instagram.

The principle of the Mk2 obscura is exactly the same, in that you can go in the camera, focus it by sliding the screen, take a picture of the screen, confuse yourself as to why everything is upside down and back to front etc. The only real difference is the smaller size and increased portability, and the fact that I hung the screen so that you can also tilt and shift the image. I can put it up in 15 minutes, and it fits in the boot of my car. Presently it is folded up above my desk. I decided to make it look more attractive also, so to that end I photographed many camera parts, from Box Brownies to iPhones, and created panels in Photoshop. I had the panels printed on fabric, and I drape the obscura in those. It actually looks like a huge camera now, and is much more inviting.

I built the obscura as a tool for others to use, for learning and teaching, and it has been used recently by all the new photography students at Falmouth University to photograph themselves during freshers' week. It has also been used in the studio, for portraits, for fun - and just last month, Martin Parr took his own selfie using the obscura. I am showing it to some primary school kids soon; I can’t wait, I think they will get very excited by it, especially if their teacher appears to them upside down. It is a wonderful thing, and it is delicious to see and hear people get so excited by what is happening inside. It was only after I had been playing with it for a while that I realised you could argue that a camera obscura selfie bookends photography.

David White started in photography in 1989, taking the NCTJ at Stradbroke in Sheffield. His first job was as a junior photographer on the Leicester Mercury. After gaining his NCTJ seniority two years later, he left to freelance and chase stories. He has been represented by many agencies over the years, from Rex to Katz, Polaris to Horton-Stephens. He has been a contributing editor to Marie-Claire magazine for his reportage photography. He won a world press award in 2001 for a picture of a cosmonaut in his space underwear. He co-founded duckrabbit. He is presently Senior Lecturer at Falmouth University on the Press and Editorial Photography BA degree course, and a foster carer for two siblings.

See more work by David White

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