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Through a pinhole camera

I am standing inside a camera. It is not the latest digital wonder; in fact, it's very low tech.

I am standing inside a camera. It is not the latest digital wonder; in fact, it's very low tech. This camera obscura, or pinhole camera as it is sometimes called, has been fashioned from simple materials, a sheet stretched over a large wooden frame and a piece of tarpaper that blocks light from a window. These props have been assembled in a back room at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery where a photography show is underway. As I stand in the darkness of the giant box with pinhole camera specialist Daniel Bouman and gallery director Pat Drope, Bouman closes the door, shutting out any remaining rays of light. Line up here, he tells us, where you won't be seen in the picture. We comply by pressing ourselves against the wall adjacent to a half-inch opening in the tarpapered window that gives onto the following scene: a railing, Molly's Lane, a stately tree not yet in bud, the pavilion on the breakwater and the parking lot of Molly's Reach. It will take a few minutes for our eyes to become accustomed to the dark. Mine take longer than Drope's - over four minutes before I can see, in soft focus, the outline of the tree branches against the white sheet, then the clouds over Keats Island. The image of the outside railing runs off the sheet and down one wall, and finally I can see the rooftop of Molly's Reach. It takes me another entire minute to realize that everything is upside down. The light squeezing through the tiny aperture in the tarpaper is enough to paint a scene on the sheet and walls of this giant pinhole camera. Camera obscura means dark room in Latin. The space is simply a dark box with a small hole to allow light to enter and a means of securing film or photo paper inside the box, facing the small hole.

"You should see it on a sunny day when the side light over the bluff is coming in," Bouman says. "The detail is sharper." Now, it's a cloudy Saturday and the image is blurry, like a watercolour. However, we have the ability to accommodate angles of view up to 160 degrees, so we can watch a car drive all the way along Molly's Lane. The image transfers into the room, across the ceiling and down the other wall. I spend another few minutes pondering why the car is travelling upside down, though Bouman tries to explain to me in some detail how light rays operate. If we were to develop this image, it would be righted when we print the film. Pinhole cameras have been around for eons - the earliest mention of one comes from Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti in 4,000 B.C. - long before our Kodak moments. How to get the image out of the box, Bouman says, is the very question that inspired the art of photography. He makes his living within the two professional fields of conservation advocacy and photography. The pinhole camera experiments were originally a curiosity to him but he soon came to love the aesthetic of the image that appears as a softer focus yet still manages to incorporate detail. Two of his own works, a self portrait and a view of the Gibsons harbour, made with a more complex zone plate camera (originally invented to image radiation) are on display at this show called Light.Two workshops will be offered while the show is in progress. Marina Crawford will give a class in the digital camera experience on April 16, then Bouman will assist others in making their own pinhole cameras on Friday, April 22. On April 24, those who wish can take a picture with their new camera on Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, a free, non-commercial event to encourage photographers everywhere to share their images. In addition, the show features work by nine other artists in various styles.

Some highlights are Sheila Page's photo of Amorgos in which the sun breaks through a cloud to shine down on a village, and Naxos, a dreamlike image. Carrie Shaw's prominent triptych has an almost abstract quality, while Maciej Tomczak's Bonniebrook Sunset wows the viewer with vivid reds. The work of Dean Van't Schip is superb, especially his photograph Weathered Granite. Within these sculpted forms of rock he seems to capture the ocean waves.

Bouman invites you to try out the camera room for yourself. The show continues until May 1. Find the Gibsons Public Art Gallery at 271 Gower Point Road. Register for workshops by emailing or call 604-886-0531.

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