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  • Writer's pictureJustin Key

Light in a Box

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

The camera obscura phenomenon on display in a bedroom

I would like to say that, as a kid, there wasn't a condition that averted my attention from the text in a book to the pictures and since there was never a mandated trip to a professional I will continue to believe that. My parents would get me books and magazines and I would flip through them repeatedly just to look at the pictures.

Eventually, my obsession transitioned from the photos to the devices that created them. I wanted a camera of my own so I could figure out the magic inside. I saved up and made my first adult purchase on a cheap Fujifilm camera. All I remember about that camera was it shot film, the proofs were constant disappointments, but having it gave me an intense satisfaction as if I was holding all I could ever want.

The first picture I ever took came one winter morning in Seymour, Wisconsin. My sister was playing in a basketball tournament and across from the high school was a bright red barn. Cows were standing under the cloudless sky and the ground was covered in fresh snow. I saw the scene as we raced to the front doors and, after we dropped my sister off, I made my dad circle back so I could take a picture. I remember staring at it through the lens, composing the image. Looking at the red barn, blue sky, and white snow, I thought what a great picture to represent America's dairyland. I snapped two shots and was ready to blow through the rest of the roll so I could get it developed.

The picture was a huge disappointment. The sky was faded and more grey than blue, the cows had become miniature versions of the giants I saw from the road, and the barn had aged a great deal during that shutter opening and closing. In that moment of taking that picture, however, believing that I was capturing a work of art, nothing else mattered.

Flash forward a few years and photography has become a frustration. I've graduated from college with a photography degree and have been struggling to find my niche. Landscapes, sports, portraits, weddings, journalism, fine art, I've done it all. The pressure of determining my future is suffocating and my passion is fading.

I finally decided on a path to pursue but was lacking the inspiration to get the wheels rolling. I had to find a way to bring back that childhood euphoria. They say think outside the box, I decided to put myself in a box instead.

Camera obscura is the basic science that all cameras are built upon. Ancient civilizations used this phenomenon to record the first images by tracing the projections that resulted. This led to the creation of pinhole cameras, using light-sensitive chemicals on paper to record the images instead and snowballed into the digital age where everyone has a camera on their phone.

Using some black paper and tape, I sealed up the window in my bedroom, cut a hole in the paper, and turned off all the lights. It took some experimentation to find a happy medium between clarity and brightness by changing the diameter of the hole. Once my eyes adjusted, that childlike wonder returned. (TIP: Do not look at the hole after your eyes adjust, you might as well be staring at the sun.)

Slowly, the scene revealed itself. The two ornamental oak trees right outside the window obstructed most of the view. First, a house on the corner, an apartment complex with its garage door, a car parked on the side of the road. Eventually, I could make out the detail of the bark on the tree across the street. I was mesmerized, and then things started to move.

The reality of the situation had disappeared, I forgot that outside the window the rest of the world was still turning. Cars were driving by, people were walking around. The image on the wall had become a movie.

In that dark room full of inspiration the excitement came back. All the doubts that had been collecting were gone, the creative block was demolished, I was flowing with motivation. I had spent far too long doubting my abilities and chances of making it as an artist but sitting in my camera, I didn't care anymore. Photography is what I want to do, and I can't be what holds me back.


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