Thomas Hudson Reeve | Photographer

Handmade Pinhole Paper Cameras


The modern camera is a wonderful thing, but it's nice to remember how simple the mechanism can be. You can strip away the technology until there is little left but the abstraction on which the machine is based. A simple manipulation of space, a few materials, and a couple of hand tools and the magic (physics) is at your fingertips without sophisticated engineering.

To simplify these cameras as much as possible I made them out of the 11x14 inch photo-paper itself. There is no film in the camera because the camera is the film. Like a salad bowl made of lettuce leaf, and consumed with the meal, the camera doesn't exist after its utility is fulfilled. There is no machine. It is more of an arrangement than a thing.

Since it is color paper, sensitive to the full spectrum of visible light, there is no "safe" light recommended for darkroom work. Each paper box camera is cut, folded, and constructed in the dark and kept in a dark bag until its moment in the sun has come.

The pinhole in the brass plate is all that is needed to project an image into the inside surface of the box (more on that later), but light also seeps through the cracks and flaps of the box construction and soaks through the black tape that holds the whole thing together. The streaks and burns and flares that appear on the final image are the result of this ambient radiation and although it can be somewhat controlled, it also depends largely on "random" factors.

Back in the darkroom, the brass lens plate is folded back like a hatch-cover in the Mark I (the Rectangle), revealing the hole in the box. In the Mark II (The Square) the lens plate caps the apex of the pyramid and can be removed by tearing away the tape that holds it in place. A funnel is placed in the hole and the camera becomes like a leaky juice carton as the chemicals are poured in and sloshed around for a couple of minutes each. Rigorous adherence to optimal chemistry technique is already out the window here, so I decided not too worry too much as long as the times and temperatures were in the ballpark.

Finally, with the lights on, the whole box is immersed in a pan of water, the black masking tape is peeled off and the box is opened flat to display its inner surface.

The first design, subsequently called the Mark I, is shaped like a camera. It allows for a largish rectangle as the main image area in the center of the paper and provides an overlap of paper at the front, which I figured would help in achieving a properly squared-up and light-tight construction working by touch alone. It also uses up a great deal of paper as box flaps.

The Mark II is the design that puts the maximum surface area on the back wall of the box. The light passing through the pinhole is conical in structure and the pyramid conforms with this, wasting no paper on the front corners. It is also a little easier to build in the dark, requiring 12 instead of 22 cuts. It is simpler to align and tape up, and easier to open when done.

These are extremely wide-angle pictures. the angle of view seems to be about 170° as the image wraps around the inside of the box almost all the way back to the aperture. There is no "fish-eye" optical distortion as with a wide-angel lens because light travel through a pinhole in a straight line whereas a glass lens bends light as it gathers it. the distortion that is evident here is caused by the various planes of the box sides intersecting the sphere of light at different angles. This stretches sections of the field of view like a mercator map projection.

Like a mirror, the scene is flipped left to right, which is why a familiar location may not look quite right.

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