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Harvard University Library Notes / March 2007 / No. 1336
Imaging Services Sits for Group Photo—Through a Pinhole
On a sunny December afternoon, Bill Comstock, HCL's head of Imaging Services, and Stephen Sylvester, Imaging Services photographer, rounded up the Imaging Services staff for a group portrait. Trooping outside, they gathered quickly on the steps of Memorial Church. But instead of whipping out the newest digital technology, Comstock and Sylvester had brought with them the slightly more unusual pinhole camera, which allowed them to capture a series of particularly dreamy images.
"I'd like to find ways to make and save more images of people in the department—ideally, images of people at work," says Comstock. "Occasionally an old photo will surface of IS staff and I find that I'm not alone in wanting to know more about the people, the library materials they were working with, and, of course, the equipment."
An old technology, the pinhole camera is still enjoyed by camera buffs for the soft, slightly blurry images it produces. It lacks the usual glass lens, so it can't really be focused. Instead, it relies on a small hole—hence the "pinhole" camera—in a very thin material to focus light by confining all light rays from a scene through a single point. The hole has to be tiny, on the order of 0.5mm or less, to produce even a relatively clear image.
Pinhole cameras come in all sizes and are readily homemade—web sites abound with directions on how to construct one out of an oatmeal box or cookie tin. In fact, several years ago, a former employee, Yosi Pozeilov, had used cardboard four-by-five-inch film boxes to make Comstock an identical father-and-son pair of pinhole cameras. One day not too long ago, Comstock and Sylvester were discussing the idea of creating a department holiday card and the subject of the pinhole camera came up.
"I thought there would be some interest and irony in going ultra-retro and using a pinhole," he says. "Stephen and I left work that day promising each other we'd try it out."
In the end, and with additional encouragement from Mary Kocol, imaging technician, they went with a pinhole camera made of wood. With a little testing, Sylvester determined how long an exposure time they needed. Because of the tiny aperture, pinhole cameras require much longer exposure times than a conventional camera. When picture time came, staff had to sit still for approximately 18 seconds to minimize ghosting in the final images.
Back in the lab, Sylvester gave the image a sepia tone and got the result above. "In the end, it was just fun," says Comstock, "and it was an excuse to gather as many IS staff as we could and to sit close together in the Yard on a sunny December afternoon."