With the New Year looming, I have been looking forward to getting the obscura out again. The time is right to try something I’ve fancied doing for a while – something that will add to the project and take it a step further.. whilst adding even more weight to those poor bike trailers!
At the moment, the images you see from the project captured with the camera obscura are digital photographs of the projections of light. I now want to try and capture the projections more directly using REAL photographic paper. This way every detail captured by the super sharp lens will be captured directly, at the original size. To this you basically need to build a photographic darkroom (remember those!?) within the camera – the light tight (ish!) space would double nicely as a darkroom, so you’d be able to process immediately and re-shoot if necessary. Obviously, this hands on, larger than life approach will be a little experimental and tricky to use initially but I can see it producing some very special images.
There are a few technical challenges that I am working through in my head at the moment, but I hope to have got a system in place and working early in the new year. Key things will be finding a good way to measure the light and work out exposure times for photographic paper (not normally used like this). This will be crucial to getting a good print, as it is when taking any picture. The results should be super sharp, black and white images with one crucial difference – not only will left become right and up become down (as it is in the obscura), but light will become dark and dark will become light, although there is a way of reversing this later on. I will keep you updated on how progress is going. It will be exciting to get working more directly with the light and getting the darkroom set up. The last time I was in a darkroom was back at university – I’m eager the see the magic of an appearing image once again… and the mildly addictive (if strangely eggy) smell of fixer.
PS – If anyone has any darkroom equipment they are selling, get in touch!
All our time in Postbrige we had been haunted by views of the road out – appearing like a steep wall of tarmac cutting across up the valley. We stocked up with supplies from the shop, and set off.
As is often the case, it wasn’t as bad as we’d thought – and the views from the top were well worth the struggle. We could see the road ahead going up and down across the landscape, and soon we able to keep enough momentum from the downhill to take the bite out of the climb. Looking back we could see the Bellever Forest, and ahead moorland we were about to ride.
The ride to Haytor was done quicker than anticipated, despite waiting for a while as a young farmer struggled to contain her sheep as they crossed the road. We said hello in the information centre. The staff were very friendly, one a past photographer and the other a keen cyclist so we got on well! We could see the ominous looking clouds in the distance that we had heard about in a forecast, and so began to set up to picture the iconic Haytor. I remember coming here to draw when I was at school, and found it made a great subject then as now. The people climbing on it, and walking up the paths towards it only add a sense of scale – through the camera they reminded me how big the landscape is and how comparitively small we are.
The visitors were intrigued and were soon keen to step inside the obscura. It was good to see families of walkers out for a ramble, and when the wind was blowing our way we could here shrieks as children climbed the tor itself. A good number came in and saw the projection of the tor, a couple helped us re-shoot the images above and played with the framing. As it is tricky to move the camera itself, it is a good way to learn about composition if you try to re-shoot the projected image with a conventional camera. We shot a number of portraits and the feedback on the camera was really positive. ‘I hadn’t thought about how a camera works at all before seeing this‘ one keen photographer said, and we were able to practically show how the obscura relates to the modern digital camera he was using.
It wasn’t long before the wind picked up, and the clouds that were safely hanging on the horizon were soon looming over head. We started to take the camera down (once soggy, it weighs even more!) and just got the inner layer in when it really hit – we sheltered under the gazebo cover until it all had gone. We got some funny looks, but it kept us dry!
After realising it was set in, we packed up regardless and jumped on the bikes. We were riding to Bovey Castle, a luxurious hotel and a very kind host – we were setting up on the lawn the next day…
We made it to Dartmoor! The weighty trailers and steep hills did their best to slow our progress but the Plym valley cycle route was not only scenic but a great, manageable way to climb up to the moors from sea level at Plymouth. A group of Dartmoor ponies (what IS the collective term for Dartmoor Ponies!?) welcomed us, and our tyres rumbled over cattlegrids. We’d climbed Dartmoor! Looking back on the way to our campsite in Princetown we could trace the route back to Plymouth and where we had been in the Tamar Valley.
We got in to Princetown and set up camp, happy with progress. I went for a dusk walk and climbed a nearby tor, watching lone headlights trace the shape of some of the surrouding hills as the first stars came out. I sat a while longer, and watched a nearby tower be smothered by low lying cloud – the red of its lights made it glow from within for a while. All this relaxed enjoyment was briefly jolted when I realised I had climbed the tor with light, and it was now dark – where was it I climbed up!? Luckily I found an easier way down, and walked back to my tent. I slept well that night.
Next morning we had a short ride to Bellever, within Dartmoor Forest and very central to Dartmoor. On the way we passed through Two Bridges. Thank you to the driver of the lorry who gave us an encouraging toot and wave as we climbed out and over the valley. I wish I had time to stop at Wistmans wood – a beautful, mystical and rare spot of ancient woodland a short walk from Two Bridges, a favourite spot of mine for photographs. On the last road to Bellever we were pulling our way up the last hill of the day when I heard a birds call, but not one I knew at all. I looked about and saw what made it – a parrot! It was grey with a lighter head and vibrant red tail perched on the edge of a pine branch.
I stopped and had a closer look – yup that’s definitely a parrot! It seemed to be enjoying the pine nuts. A passing motorist also stopped to see what we were looking at, and we guessed how it had got here – an escaped pet, we thought. It seemed to look more at home here than in a cage, despite the unlikely mix! I checked if it was there still later but it had moved on, so I hope it makes the tough Dartmoor winters as it is a long way from home! We are staying at the Bellever YHA, a great little hostel in a stunning location. It would be a great base camp to explore Dartmoor on foot or by bike, I will be back I’m sure. We arrived a little early and I took the time to do some much needed bike maintenance (trailers can be tough on brake pads!) and to explore Bellever wood through which the Dart river flows.
After a good substantial breakfast we took the camera to Postbridge, where Dartmoor National Park have an information centre right by the very picturesque Clapper Bridge. Our first view that we set the camera up looked across the fields nearby where a farmer and his dog was gathering his flock of sheep expertly. The small hedgerow in the foreground was great to show people how cameras are able to shift focus, and how changing the aperture can bring detail to the blurred landscape behind.
We had a great mix of people out enjoying the moors, and lots of intially bewildered German tourists, one of whom (I think) explained he had once cycled from Prague to Scotland. Although my German is very limited ‘einen gros camera!’ seemed to work when combined with some enthusiastic pointing, once inside the light still amazed and excited, and I was able to mime how it worked. We were also joined by some Duke of Edinburgh hikers, families, locals and the lovely Dartmoor staff. Click for information about the visitor centre and view their webcam here.
We then packed up and crossed the road (stopping for a quick ice cream from the Post Office Stores) and set up with a view of the very scenic Clapper Bridge. Apparantly, the name comes from the word cleaca, which means ‘bridging the stepping stones’.
It was great watching the movement of the visitors on the bridge – it is always striking seeing the image move from within the camera as it can be easy to forget that the projection is live, rather than a captured, still image. Watching people photograph the very photogenic setting was also strange from within a camera – it was funny how covert you feel inside the camera, being able to see out but others can’t see in! Despite the size, not many people suspect that it is a camera obscura. I spent some time photographing just the bridge and its visitors before inviting them inside. The children particularly liked this, especially when they could see people they know outside. It was good to hear people notice different things within the camera that they don’t outside – the different colours and shapes of the trees for instance, or a bird flying across the sky.
We had a good mix of visitors enjoying a holiday both from within the UK and further afield, and a number took our worksheets away to take pictures of their own – we are excited to see how they come out.
When we explained that we were carrying all of our equipment by bicycle it was funny gauging peoples reactions – many thought Dartmoor was too hilly or dangerous to be explored by bike. Although the hills are certainly a challenge, I have always found cycling on Dartmoor very rewarding – you can better appreiciate the scale and beauty of the place when you have pedalled your way across it. You can better appreciate the pubs and cafes, also!
We headed back to Bellever for the night, writing postcards and drinking hot chocolate. Early the next day we headed to Haytor.
If you are reading this and have photographs or the land to submit prompted by our visit please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put them online for all to see.