by Helena Brunnerová
That day I spent the morning photoshopping walls (which is a part of my job), and the afternoon and evening translating a text on the history of photography; at 11 p.m., as I watched white smoke rising from my battery charger, I felt inspired to try an alternative to digital. I wanted a reliable camera that does not need electricity or Photoshop. So I decided to build it myself.
A matchbox camera works on the principle of camera obscura – a natural optical phenomenon which has been known about for thousands of years. It can be observed in caves as well as in human-created environments such as in a light-tight box or a room which has a small opening to allow light to get in. The light coming in through only one crack or hole then forms an upside down and reversed image of the outside world on the wall opposite the opening. To turn camera obscura into a camera, you just need a light sensitive material (such as film or sensor) to capture the projected image.
The body of a matchbox camera is, as the name suggests, a matchbox to which two film cartridges are connected on either side. One cartridge contains film which runs through the matchbox into the empty cartridge. The inside of the camera and cartridges must be perfectly light-tight, which can be quickly done with electrical tape; the opening (easily created by cutting a large hole into the match box which is then covered with a tin foil which has a tiny hole made by a pin in it) can be covered by a piece of cardboard or any other material which can be easily removed. To make an exposure, you remove the cover of the opening – the smaller the opening, the sharper the images and the longer the times of exposure: for film with ISO 100, it is around 5-10s on a sunny day, 30s on an overcast day and minutes or even hours indoors and at night. It takes a lot of guessing and experimentation but once you are happy with your exposure, the opening can be closed and the exposed piece of film rewound into the other cartridge. It is possible to take around 30 exposures on one roll of film. Then you can either take the film into a lab or develop it yourself (you only need a developing tank, two chemicals: developer and fixer, a sink and about 15 minutes of time).
Although this camera is indeed very primitive and its optical qualities are rather horrendous by today’s standards, film and pre-film techniques have never lost their place in the world of photography. Sally Mann, one of the best known contemporary fine-art photographers, keeps using the tedious 19th century technique of collodion process and the Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý created his famous body of work in the second half of the 20th century exclusively with home made cameras (created from road asphalt, toilet paper rolls and the like). Only a few years ago, non-digital techniques have experienced a revival among amateurs with “hipster“ cameras, such as plastic “toy cameras” Holga and Diana, Polaroid cameras and old analogue SLRs; there are dozens of YouTube videos on matchbox cameras and many users of digital techniques are adding filters during post-processing to give their images a more retro look. Although these cameras cannot compete with modern DSLRs when it comes to speed, control and optical quality, their playfulness and the need for experimenting gives them a certain unique charm.
The pictures for this article have been taken by a matchbox camera created out of matchbox, little piece of tinfoil, one paper clip, electric tape and two film cartridges – one containing film and one empty. Developed at home.