Everyone knows we’re obsessed with tiny fibreglass camping trailers, those from the Boler company and of any other make. It’s an addiction, all consuming, the desire to search out these “wheeled-eggs” completely overpowering…and we make zero attempt to end it. We’re under a spell, broken and damaged by it all and totally unapologetic…we embrace it and refuse to stop. My name is Chris D, she is Connie B, and we have…ahem…this “little” problem.
Today’s fix: an incredibly interesting Boler with a different purpose. Still looking every bit the camper, a lack of windows the only real give away something’s up, this one functions as a giant rolling “Camera Obscura”. A what? More on this soon enough. Created by an artist, it is put on public display from time to time including at the yearly Beakerhead Event in Calgary. More on this down below.
First, the Camera Obscura…it’s an incredibly simple device…a chamber of near any size, where a projected image is displayed. There’s no film involved although the “Obscuras” eventually morphed into what would become film cameras. That’s another story though. Completely straightforward and uncomplicated, their function is so basic anyone can understand it. Size wise, they can be something as small as a shoe box, but more often are much bigger, like room sized, that of a tent, or in this case here, that of a camping trailer. The biggest ones are the size of a house. No matter, the main consideration is that the environment is totally sealed from outside light
On one end is a lens, be it nothing more than a tiny pinhole, or something more camera-like and made of glass, placed so that it projects an image of whatever it’s in front of on the back wall of the container or room. The effect is much like the clean “live view” setting on your modern digital camera. Only bigger in most cases. Much bigger.
If the Camera Obscura was large enough, and most were, one viewed the scene from inside, a totally immersive experience. We’ve been there and found it bloody mind blowing. We always find magic in the places we document!
The use of Camera Obscuras goes back eons. In more recent times, like the last few centuries, they’d be used by scientists to study astronomical events. Artists would use the projected image as a guide and trace it on a paper background hung inside the camera. And the curious would use them to look at the world around them in a new and different way. Once film cameras came on the scene, they for the most part fell from use.
The image projected inside a Camera Obscura, uncorrected, is displayed backwards and upside down which can seem a bit strange. It sure was for us. We’ve shown that in one of the photos, whereas the rest have been flipped back to proper orientation so as not to scramble our reader’s brains too much. The image displayed inside a Camera Obscura is dim even in full daylight. Depth of field (lens dependant to a degree) gives an effect almost like the “toy camera” setting on your digital – very shallow with lots of blur outside the limited focus plane. The displayed image at that point shows an amazing clarity however. Three-D, like you could reach out and be in the action.
This Obscura is made from a Boler. If you’re an avid reader of this website, and we hope you are, you already know about these little trailers (popular in the 1970s/1980s). This one is empty on the inside, just a shell with everything removed.
The lenses were salvaged from an old film developer unit. Focus can be challenging, no focus ring to make things easy here – generally the subject needs to be moved back and forth in relation to the lens until the image is sharp. This sort of limits what can be a subject. Lighting does too – a lot is needed recall. And it’s all made worse by that shallow depth of field. No one said it was easy!
This Camera Obscura is the brainchild of Artist and Alberta College of Art and Design Professor Mitch Kern, a fellow whose understanding of light and photography seems to know no bounds. We’re humble in his presence, the hacks that we are. The project took several years to complete as labours of love often do. It’s weird, creative, quirky…God we love artist types. No thinking outside the box here, it was all inside! He came up with the name “Camper Obscura” by the way, not us. And it’s devilishly clever.
The trailer is put on display at events now and then, most notably Beakerhead, a yearly happening in Calgary each September. In their own words “Beakerhead is an annual program that brings together the arts, sciences, and engineering sectors to build, engage, compete, and exhibit interactive works of art, engineered creativity and entertainment.” Bravo, that’s much better than I could say. Check them out when you have the chance…Beakerhead (Baby)!. Our society hasn’t been witness to any of these events yet…blame it on being busy not a lack of interest…but we’re hoping for an invite (hint, hint).
Where ever the camper camera is set up the view out might have one looking at a staged scene close to the trailer and done up my Mitch himself, say that of an office setting, or maybe a kitchen table. Something ordinary and everyday. It’s well lit, light stands and some from nature, and often includes the artist himself as a live actor in the scene, a mannequin of sorts – unmoving since depth of field is so limited – back or forth too much and focus would be compromised.
All the while viewers take their turn sitting inside the mobile Obscura to view the resultant image. And to take a pic if their camera can handle it. Ours were shot 24mm-ish (we since got a 16mm that would have done better), wide open, 1/20-1/30 or so handheld at 3200 or 6400 ISO. Quick, dirty and most definitely inelegant, but that’s how we work.
For us the scene was the artist playing with his pooch at the local off leash park – pretty mundane stuff really, yet somehow made super-special given how we were viewing it. Imagine being in perpetual darkness and seeing for the very first time. It was that exciting! Might as well been looking in awe at a Picasso. We were lost in the moment and only snapped when the door was opened. Blown away…wait used that already. Hard to explain, this old technology going back to like the beginning of time, that still impresses. Something special here, and one special Boler, – well they all are, but this one is just a tad more. Boler, plus fun, art…part of a perfect day.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: May, 2017.
Location: Calgary, AB.
Article references and thanks: Mitch Kern: Associate Professor of Photography at Alberta College of Art and Design, The Beakerhead Organization.