Images of Exploration: Painting, drawing, and photography as records of Observation
The Rationale for the Lesson
Last fall, I co-facilitated a leadership summit for middle-school age young people in St. Paul on the Pribilof Islands. One of the skill sets about a third of the young people self-identified as very interesting was video production, film writing, and editing. I think it is a pivotal moment when any learner gives another person insight into their curiosity and motivation.
Working on this leadership event with the Aleut Community of St. Paul, the tribal government and the Pribilof School District has been the start of a productive collaboration between them and Bristol Bay Campus. Another possible opportunity is with the Aleut Community, Department of Health and Human Services. This department has created a community arts center (CAC) in the village, which operates as an art studio, offering classes, resources and a safe place in the community for creativity and self-reflection. They have an ambitious and complex vision for creating lifelong learning opportunities on the island one aspect of which is a commitment to building STEAM opportunities for young learners.
A significant opportunity in my own life came from discovering an aptitude for drawing and painting in college. Drawing, in particular, inspired me to think more deeply about seeing, or perhaps more analytically observing. Then in graduate school, thinking about the history of science, I noticed that in the 18th century, drawing and painting were among the skills in which scientists were trained. Years later for Ray Barnhardt’s Culture, Community, and Curriculum class, I brainstormed a course in this kind of observation that progressed from drawing to photography and dabbled along the way with microscopes, telescopes, and trail cameras.
Given the young people of St. Pauls’ interest in video, reworking this idea seemed a good way to connect their passion with a broader awareness of photography, art, and observation as it crosses between art and science. I could as well see interesting connections with readings for ED 681 Place-based Education in particular Professor Green’s work with children (Green C., 2013) and wearable cameras (Green C., in press).
We see a significant push to enhance our teaching in science, technology, engineering, and math, perhaps as should be. Alas, we seem to forget the importance of art in training our observational abilities. Indeed, we forget the role sketching, drawing, and painting had for explorers before the advent of photography. The revolution in inquiry and representation that photography itself offered to both science and art is, as well, assumed. Charles Darwin, for example, kept his journal of sketches and notes. Before him, Lewis and Clark, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, and John James Audubon employed sketching and painting to inform their field research, for examples. While I would love for this curriculum to stretch back to the fundamentals of drawing, and to introduce the elements of the art form, line, color, space, texture, value, unity, balance, and shape. I worry that this is too far afield from the young peoples expressed interest. Instead, I think this curriculum should focus on photography and videography (Heath, 2014).
Turning this into a semester-long course would be rewarding. The students could practice skills in producing visual arts. Given the framing of the course, it is a natural connection for the students to photograph landscapes, birds and animals, and plants, and the area around St. Paul. Blurring the distinctions between art and science as well is intriguing.
This particular lesson is focused on building the straightforward Pinhole Camera. It is a project-based activity. Students will begin to develop in understanding basic optics and the workings of a simple camera.
The Pribilof School District sees many of its high school age learners head off to boarding school. However, there are a fair number of middle school age learners on the island. This curriculum lives at the intersection of science, arts, and writing and can speak to several State learning objectives. As well, it can talk to concerns about place-based education. Along with the natural environment of the Pribilof Islands, there is a built environment. Perhaps if the lessons are crafted well, these young people can develop a degree of self-reflectivity about both themselves and their habitats.
Technology or Materials Needed
The original invention of the pinhole camera refers to the camera obscura phenomenon, ancient Chinese, Greek, Indian and Arab all described.
- Pinhole photographs have the nearly infinite depth of field; everything appears in focus.
- As there’s no lens distortion, wide-angle images remain absolutely
- Exposure times are usually long, resulting in motion blur around moving objects and the absence of objects that moved too fast.
Other special features can be built into pinhole cameras such as the ability to take double images by using multiple pinholes, or the ability to take pictures in cylindrical or spherical perspective by curving the film plane. (Pinhole camera, 2018)
However, it took advances in chemistry to allow this phenomenon to be used to make images, so it was the mid-1800s before a pinhole camera was possible. This lesson has four distinct sections, building the “camera,” taking pictures, developing pictures, and the selection of images for display and the written reporting of the project.
Pinhole cameras can be handmade by the photographer for a particular purpose. In its simplest form, the photographic pinhole camera can consist of a light-tight box with a pinhole in one end, and a piece of film or photographic paper wedged or taped into the other end. A flap of cardboard with a tape hinge can be used as a shutter. The pinhole may be punched or drilled using a sewing needle or small diameter bit through a piece of tinfoil or thin aluminum or brass sheet. This piece is then taped to the inside of the light-tight box behind a hole cut through the box. A cylindrical oatmeal container may be made into a pinhole camera. (Pinhole camera, 2018)
Materials: This project requires a box, or cardboard tube (like an oatmeal container) black duct tape, clear tape, black construction paper, aluminum foil, and pushpin, a flat washer, and nut sized to the tripod mount for a base. Pictures of the construction of the camera are from either:
Mr.Fisher3. (2012, June 14). Shoebox Camera. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from Instructables: http://www.instructables.com/id/Shoebox-Camera/
Pinhole camera. (2018, March 6). Retrieved March 6, 2018, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinhole_camera
Working as teams of no more than three:
- Students will produce a functioning pinhole camera – Follow the instructions below and build a pinhole camera.
- Students will use the camera to take at least four images that speak to their experience of the natural or built environment of St. Paul.
- Students will demonstrate safe techniques and develop at least four pictures these may be any combination of negative or positive images.– Use the darkroom to load the photographic paper in camera and to develop, both positive and negative images from the exposed photo paper.
- Students will select four images to be displayed as a collage. Students will write a short (no longer than a single page typed double space) artists’ statement about the collage. Teams will collaborate on writing a short essay describing the learning they accomplished in this exercise. – Include a description of how each picture was taken (length of exposure, GPS coordinates) and what can be seen in the artist statement.
Below are examples of what is possible from pinhole images. These were harvested online and focus on natural landscapes to demonstrate the applicability of this technology and exercise in enhancing place-identity and awareness.
The educational standards for science, art, and language arts archived at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (Alaska Standards, 2018).
 SE 2.1 identifying, designing, testing, and revising solutions to a local problem
 SE 2.2 comparing the student’s work to the work of peers to identify multiple paths that can be used to investigate and evaluate potential solutions to a question or problem
 SF1.1 –SF3.1 describing how local knowledge, culture, and technologies of various activities (e.g., hunting fishing, subsistence) influence the development of scientific knowledge
CR 3) refine and complete artistic work
PR 2) develop and refine artistic work for performances, presentations and or productions; and
PR) perform, present and produce artistic work
RE) interpret intent and meaning in artistic works; and
RE) apply criteria to evaluate artistic work
CO) relate artistic ideas and works and societal, cultural, and historical contexts to deepen understanding
Writing Standards Grade 8, Text Types, and Purposes, 2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization and analysis of relevant content.
Writing Standards Grade 8, Production, and Distribution of Writing, 4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 5. With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing and rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.
Speaking and Listening Standards Grade 8, Presentation of Knowledge, 4. Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation. 5. Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.
Safety First: Building the camera and developing the photographic paper will involve using tools and chemicals. Use common sense, follow instructions, and wear safety glasses.
Cover all the seams, both inside and outside, in the box or cylinder with black duct tape. Use black construction paper to line or black paint to cover the inside of the box entirely. The box lid must be light tight use tape or black paper to secure the top, if necessary.
Cut a small circular opening in the front side of the box to form the lens opening. Cut a piece of black duct tape larger than the whole. Cut a piece of foil larger than the hole but smaller than the tape. Secure the tape and aluminum foil to the inside of the box.
Use a pushpin or needle to make a small hole in the center of the exposed aluminum foil. Twist the pin as it passes through the tape. The aim is to create as little and perfectly circular hole as possible. Make a shutter for the camera on the outside of the box, over the aperture in the foil and tape. The shutter is a hinged flap of black duct tape. Use a small piece of cellophane tape to hold the shutter closed before and after taking the picture. Build the tripod mount with a large flat washer and nut sized and threaded for the tripod mount. Super glue the nut to the washer and tape these to the bottom of the box, or cylinder as illustrated. It may also be helpful for framing the images to make a “viewfinder” that sits or is mounted to the top of the box, sized similarly with the photographic paper to be used (Mr.Fisher3, 2012).
Loading photographic paper must happen in a dark room. Many schools and libraries used to have photographic dark rooms; however, a closet can be adapted for temporary use. Photographic paper is light sensitive, so anything other than a completely dark room will expose the paper. The light of a flashlight covered with several thicknesses of red cellophane located six to eight feet away from the photographic paper or developing trays can be used for some working light. Alternatively, a safelight bulb can be purchased and used in a lamp or overhead fixture. To load the photographic paper, open the box and tape the paper to the side opposite the pinhole. The shiny side should be facing the pinhole. Use ordinary cellophane tape to attach the paper. Close the shoebox and light seal the lid with black duct tape (Mr.Fisher3, 2012).
It may be expedient for each group to use all the pinhole cameras built by the class for this section of the work, rather than taking a single picture at a time. Mount the camera on the tripod to ensure stability. Find a subject, landscape, or built environment to make an image. Line up the camera using the viewfinder or best guess. Record, the GPS coordinates of the site, and the length of the exposure. Exposure length will necessarily be a bit experimental, however, ten seconds if it is bright and sunny and fifteen if it is indoors as a starting place. Finish by closing the shutter securely as additional light will ruin the picture (Mr.Fisher3, 2012).
Developing Photographic Paper
Developing must also happen in a dark room. Place exposed photographic paper into a tray of developer solution. Completely submerge the paper in the developer for one minute. Move the paper into a tray with a water bath to stop the development. Next, put the paper into a tray of fixer solution for four minutes. End with a final rinse in a tray with water. The pictures will need to dry. A clothesline of sorts with a drop cloth below can be used as a temporary solution. Do not touch the image surface until the paper dries as the image can be smudged.
Trouble can arise when:
- the pinhole is too large
- the box is not light tight
- exposure time is too long
- the camera moves while taking the picture
- light leaks in the darkroom(Mr.Fisher3, 2012)
Checks for Understanding Questions
The teacher needs to take time to build a camera and to experiment with each step of developing the images to be able to assist the students as they work through the project. With the ubiquity of digital photography, the use of darkrooms has mostly disappeared. This lesson provides an opportunity to discuss lenses and basic optics. As well, discussion of the basic chemistry is possible and essential. Artistic concepts as well can be discussed throughout the exercise particularly as the students engage in the iterative process of taking and developing images.
In the above, I have focused on building the camera and only lightly touched on place-based learning and or environmental awareness. Probably, these topics need equal weight at the outset and along the way so that students are focused on telling a story about their lives in St. Paul and creating a sense of self-reflection on how the place has shaped them as people.
From my brief time in St. Paul, this sense of place is an outstanding value that is emphasized, reiterated, and shared. There are various lenses that the young people experience it through, cultural, and economic, for examples, but they hear about marine debris first as litter on their beaches, but in turn, this connects them with the broader world. Therefore, it is interesting to speculate on the collages the young people assemble and the conversations about how these relate to a broader world as well.
This lesson could open up a longer course of study on photography and videography. This is because students are learning the vocabulary of art. They are learning to be more thoughtful in framing and choosing images because pinhole cameras are more demanding to use than our ubiquitous smartphones. I see a natural connection to the Robert Rodriquez: Ten Minute Film School (Paulo De Souza, 2008).
A vital element of his lecture is the idea that much editing can be saved if anticipated by camera direction, framing, location, and timing, by good storyboarding beforehand. This is difficult to convey in the world of cheap and easy smartphones and digital cameras. However, the repetitive, mechanical process of loading the pinhole camera, framing, timing the shot, and then the process of developing begins to teach the intentionality of better camera skills.
The initial idea for this lesson grew out the young people’s self-expressed interest. However, this specific lesson lacks that connection at this point. I think I would test the concept by merely asking the kids on the island about their interest. It might be appropriate for school, or it might be better situated in the community art center. In the latter case, I can see the topic as a stand-alone course. Perhaps offered as a one-credit course that is dual-credit to young people, and as college credit provided to adult learners. This format has worked in the community previously. It speaks to the Aleut Community’s goal for an eco-system of life-long learning. No matter, I think the end of the unit, evaluations would be significant for refining all aspects of the lesson.
The project will be assessed for:
- teamwork and collaboration
- quality of camera construction
- quality of collage of pictures
- complete and thoughtful project report
A rubric will need to be developed for each aspect of the project. Students will also grade themselves and their partner to makes sure work is equally distributed. As well, the whole class will comment on the collages. The report and collage will take some time to put together. Assigning some of it for homework might be required.
I am acutely aware that I am not a classroom, and specifically a middle school teacher. Therefore, I may have designed something that is entirely impractical. However, I do think that the hands-on quality of much of this lesson might engage both genders and in various ways. While there is conceptual content that can be brought into this lesson, optics, chemistry, elements of art and design, the core is practical and hands on. It as well implicitly creates a necessary practice of iterations and drafts, as learners engage with each exposed image. For example, they may achieve an excellent framing but a poor exposure and decide to reload the cameras and return to the spot to experiment with several longer exposure times. I think this is an important lesson for learners that satisficing on work and projects is part of the school culture, but it has no place in personal or professional lives and expressions.
I worry that I am understated regarding place-identity and ecological consciousness. However, I think this is due to two thoughts, first, is that Green’s using wearable cameras with very young children was a process of discovery (Green C., in press), second that these middle-school students in St. Paul, already have a place-identity and ecological consciousness. I am interested in leaving the assignment a little open-ended to see what the young people produce. It is always possible to course correct during instruction and as well in subsequent iterations of teaching. Also, given the young people’s existing place-identity by leaving it open-ended, I see the results as more expressive and less an artifice of adult intervention in the classroom.
I was a little surprised at how natural the state of Alaska educational standards was to fit into this interdisciplinary unit. I was expecting that to be more laborious. Perhaps, defining the rubric for grading, and connecting this to elements of standardized testing are more difficult and time-consuming tasks? My surprise causes me to reflect on again why it is so difficult to make progress on place-based education, and on interdisciplinary instruction, or conversely what limits instructors to textbooks and lectures? That, of course, maybe my naiveté with working with the age group and the larger bureaucracy of schools. As a Scoutmaster I would do something like this with those kids and with no second thought, so likely I am missing the broader context of schooling and teaching.
Finally, I wonder if there is a way for these lesson plans to be shared with the class cohort? Receiving a grade is fine. However, peer feedback is often more useful for fine tuning and or clarifying questions like those I ask just above.
Alaska Standards. (2018, March 8). Retrieved from Alaska Department of Education and Early Development: https://education.alaska.gov/standards
Green, C. (2013). A sense of autonomy in young children’s special places. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 1(1), 8-33.
Green, C. (in press). Embodied ChildhoodNature Experience through sensory tours. In A. Cutter-Mackenzie, & E. Barratt Hacking, International Research Handbook on ChildhoodNature. New York: Springer.
Mr.Fisher3. (2012, June 14). Shobox Camera. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from Instructables: http://www.instructables.com/id/Shoebox-Camera/
Paulo De Souza, M. (2008, July 5). The Robert Rodriguez: 10 Minute Film School. The 1st & Original. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from Paulo De Souza, M.
Pinhole camera. (2018, March 6). Retrieved March 6, 2018, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinhole_camera