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Stunning pictures from a tiny speck of light

By This is Bath  |  Posted: November 02, 2010

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In his time as an experimental photographer, Justin Quinnell has tackled everything from a six-month exposure of the Clifton Suspension Bridge to photographing Clevedon Pier using a wheelie bin as a rudimentary pinhole camera.

But the latest project for the pinhole camera-obsessed artist and lecturer has seen him working with more people – and more pinhole cameras – than ever before.

Justin's Sunrise Project came as the highlight of his six-month stint as artist in residence at the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol.

The project involved the Eastville- based photographer working with residents across Knowle West to produce 450 pinhole camera photographs, each with an exposure time of three months.

"I got everyone from schools and youth clubs to the nuns at the local convent taking part in the project," says Justin. "When you turn up at a youth club and tell the kids that you are going to make a camera out of an old beer can, most of them don't believe it's possible at first.

"I get a great kick out of seeing their wonder when it works. I don't think there's enough wonder in the world these days, thanks in large part to modern technology.

"Nobody looks at an iPod and wonders how it works – the process behind it is hidden from us, but children will always look at a vinyl record and – after asking what it is – wonder how the grooves in the vinyl are converted into music they can hear.

"Nowhere is this more true than with photography – much of the magic has gone from it since digital cameras have taken over the world. With projects like this, I like to give a little of that wonder back."

Justin says the process is relatively simple.

"I use beer cans because you need to use aluminium rather than steel cans. You simply remove the top, push in a piece of special photographic paper, seal the can with gaffer tape, and bore a pin hole into the side of the can.

"Then you leave it in one place for three months, and the light coming into the pinhole leaves an impression on the photographic paper. This picture is lost shortly after you have opened the can – it cannot be fixed – but if you open it in a dark room and immediately scan it into a computer, you've got your three-month exposure picture to keep.

"It's interesting when you get to that stage of scanning it into a computer, because suddenly your 200- year-old technology is marrying up with state-of-the-art technology, but the results really can be stunning."

The photographs produced by the project are dark and shadowy images of the city, with the sun's progression across the sky as a distinctive recurring feature of all the images.

"I asked everyone to put their pinhole can cameras in their gardens, preferably taped up a tree or a high pole, where they cannot be disturbed.

"Then you simply have to leave it for three months and see what you get. I deliberately asked everyone to point it in the direction of the sun, because you then get an amazing pattern created by the sun's daily progress across the sky.

"There are very few things left in life where the outcome is unknown these days. But that's what I love about pinhole photography – it's out of your hands, you simply have to wait and see what chance brings to the pictures.

"For example, one of the pictures shows the sun reflecting on the top of the cars in a car park, which is something we couldn't have predicted, and on another water has leaked into the camera and created an interesting swirling effect.

"One of the cameras even became home to a snail, so we get his trail across the picture as well as the sun and the landscape."

With all the cameras collected and the pictures scanned, Justin has now produced a book of the images.

"The book is available online through my website, and really it is a way of being able to give those who took part a permanent record of the project," he says.

"But I think others will find the book interesting too, because many of the images are fascinating, and I've included a few pages in there explaining how readers can have a go at making a pinhole camera for themselves."

The Sunrise Project book is available direct from Justin's website, www.pinholephotography.org, priced £8.95.

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