A Classic Street Camera
After seeing Anton Orlov's transparant red camera, and Joe van Cleave's many home made cameras, I've been wanting to make a street camera. Such street cameras are often called "Afghan Box Cameras" after Birk & Foley's book, but have been in use to make photos for official documents everywhere.
Such cameras aren't for sale, usually, and the tradition, out of neccesity, is to make your own camera, customized to your own workflow. Just look at the enormous variety in street box cameras by clicking through the images on wikipedia.
The key feature is that the darkroom is built into the camera, so customers could be given the positive prints within minutes.
What I want to expand on is the way to obtain a positive. Street photographers used to re-photograh the negative. The next step is to develop the paper negative further, so it ends up as a one-off positive photograph. As a bonus, it's vey cool see a positive coming up from a white sheet of paper.
I can do this in colour reliably, but a black and white reversal process can be done using only environmentally safe chemistry. I will need to fine tune this skill, though.
I had hardly any woodworking skills, so I decided to make several cameras to learn. We have a workshop where I work, but I needed a dedicated place to figure everything out. Therefor I rented this wonderful workshop in Utrecht, on an incredible location, next to a canal. And I stared working.
The proof of concept
The first build was just a proof of concept, to see if the size I had in mind was correct. To see if I wanted tilt and shift to be built in.
Sacrificing an Antique Cashbox
The second build is my current project. I'm using an antique Chinese moneybox as the camera body. It has wooden nails, as wel as some iron ones. The bottom is not as old as the rest, judging by the modern nails that are used for that part. The first thing I did was making the bottom light tight. With a table saw I made the gaps wider, so I could fit strips of wood in them.
It is fitted with a 1905 brass aplanat type barrel lens. 210mm f8-f45. The lens is branded "Guy de Coral". He was a mediocre photographer himself, but the workshops he gave as a camera seller were instrumental in positioning photography as a hobby in the Netherlands. My ancestors that lived on Curacao at the time, must have been among his customers.
To make a working camera, it needs the following:
- Two trays to develop the paper in
- A holder for the photographic paper, hanging behind the lens
- Rails to move this holder back and forth to focus the projection
- A ground glass to check the focus on, doubling as a means to hold the paper flat
- A hole in the back, with a loupe in it, to peek into the camera to focus
- Light tight stop to close the focus hole
- A light tight case to store sheets of paper in the camera
- A trunk to get a hand into the camera, without leaking light into the camera
The Learning Opportunities
I started out by making the paper case, the rails and the focus screen. I ended up making magnetic clamps in that, so the screen presses the paper flat.
After making a light tight rim for the lid, I found out that there was no way could put the focus rails I had made earlier, into the box. So I had to figure out a new way to add the rails. The New rails.
While figuring out the exact height the rails should be on, I found out that I had only 5mm to spare! The height of the trays plus the paper case plus the paperholder fit into the box, but with very little room to move. That's close fit is not by design, but by luck.
However, the trays with the liquids no longer fitted through the top after I made the lid light tight. I had not thought of that. So now I need a door on the side. That turned out to be the biggest challenge so far. I made the door of an old picture frame, to keep the outside of the box completely old. That wish caused a lot of extra work.
Plus I found out I cannot make a proper hole for the door. I simply lack the skills to mill reliably. Good thing I practiced on a piece of garbage wood, as to not ruin the Chinese box over a bold overestimation of my abilities.
To not get frustrated during the many hours spent, seemingly without results, I remind myself of my higher goal of learning. Ultimately, I want a much bigger camera than this one, and the only way to learn how to do that, is to make this one first.
Also worthy of note: spray painting the inside of a box, captures the propellant. This can be ignited by the heater. And it did. The gas exploded with a loud, but resonant bang. A flame engulfed me for a very brief moment, burning all hairs on my hands and arms, and my eyelashes. The beard was largely saved by my face mask. This must have happened to more people that day, because every place I went that night, smelled like burnt beard.
I could not have gotten so far without the help of Pelle Kuipers, whom I'm renting the workshop from and who has a lot of knowledge and skills I can learn from. Or without my colleague Judith van de Pas who answered many questions I had.
And the tailor round the corner, Nemat, who made the sleeve of the camera for me. He happens the be from Afghanistan, and told me that as a kid, he always saw several photographers with such cameras near the Iranian ambassy. Not only did they take passport photographs, they also helped with filling in the official documents. That is a social layer to the story I was not previously aware off.
And thank you, Vasilis, for making this website!
A test run, using the workshop as a darkroom
After some thougts, I decided I would not make a door, just a circular hole for the sleeve. So I printed a hole :-) and Pelle copied that hole to the box.
I also printed a clamp to mount the sleeve to the box. That seems to work.
The development trays will need to come in through the original lid at the top. I will need smaller trays for that.
I'm printing new development trays. I'm also rethinking the paper safe. I want an upright box screwed to the back.
I need to discuss developing techniques with Yevgeny Dyer, a very creative photographer whom I met in Iceland.
After that, I ready for the spring, to meet people and make portraits of them. One off, real objects to touch, real conversations to be had.