Kelli Anderson is a uniquely gifted talent whose latest entrepreneurial feat is a gift that will appeal to everyone who loves good design, playful concepts, smart invention and cameras. She has constructed a pop-up pinhole camera in a book, aptly titled This Book is a Camera, which you’ll want to point and shoot. See its incredible construction here. Now read this interview with Kelli about the challenges and joys of making a product with a long legacy in the form that you digitalists will engage with today.
You’ve been working with paper of late. What triggered this camera project?
What I find enchanting about paper is its ability to showcase the hidden forces at play behind everyday life. How, as a designer, can I get the viewer to interact with something that they cannot see—like sound vibrations or the trajectory of a light beam? These phenomena form the structure behind every single thing that happens in the world—but that mostly transpire behind the scenes. Paper is a fantastic material precisely because we expect nothing from it. It is what our bills arrive printed on. So if I can make something out of paper that actually does something (anything, really—it is a really low bar!), it is an effective way to prompt the viewer to question what is really going on. Paper, in this context, is a little like that plastic bag in the movie American Beauty. We wouldn’t see the dancing movements of the wind without it, but the bag itself holds little significance. It is a structure that illuminates wondrous substructures.
Similarly, pinhole cameras are really cool because they are so simple, but do so much. They are just a light-proof space with a hole in it, but they capture images. As little machines [they] elucidate how light beams work while teaching the basics of analog photography. So it was a pretty intriguing problem to try to make one out of paper and surround it with a book explaining how it functions.
You produced it yourself—no publisher, no middlemen. Was it difficult?
It was definitely difficult to devise a pop-up form that was both light-tight and collapsible. (I studied the structure of every collapsible object I could find before ending up back at the dawn of photography with the simple bellows/accordion form. Noted: “history.”)
In terms of production: Because I knew exactly how I wanted the book to work, feel and be represented, I decided it would be more expedient to not work with a publisher. This freed me to make each micro-decision about production without having to negotiate it with an entity whose motives might differ from my own. So it is a very pure object in this way—it is exactly what I think it needs to be.* Once I had my final prototype constructed and design files finalized, Structural Graphics coordinated the printing and production of 1,000 books and got the whole thing done in six weeks. It was an extremely unforgiving job, as a tiny light leak would destroy the entire apparatus. I had tested a dozen lightweight black papers before I found one that was really/truly opaque.
*Being able to make this choice was a true luxury—possible only because I am a creative resident with Adobe this year and will therefore still be able to buy food even if the book flops.
Does it actually work?
Yes, it does, although it requires a lot of participation! The reader must load a piece of 4×5 photo paper or film in the back envelope (in the dark), close it, and then lift the shutter to expose the light-sensitive surface. The exposures take about 15 seconds in daylight. The book comes with instructions for how to develop photographs in an old takeout tray in your bathroom/closet—aka the scrappiest development procedure possible!
A pinhole camera is lens-less, so it lacks the focusing mechanisms of a normal lens (or eyeball). Because of this, the images are fuzzier than photographs produced with a lens. The flipside of not having focus is that nothing is out of focus either. Objects near the lens are just as “in-focus” as distant objects. It is pretty neat!
Do you see more paper in your future?
Yes, in fact, I had prototyped another book in 2014 which is now being mass-produced by a large publisher. It is called This Book is a Planetarium and contains six interactive pop-up objects—one of which is a tiny paper planetarium which can be used with your smartphone’s flashlight. (I have a thing for extremely literal book titles.)
Shorter term: I’m also working on an all-paper music video right now, which is coming out in two weeks.
How do we get this for our own?
For now, I’m just selling them on my website and mailing them off into the world with little notes. It is a very small-scale operation. However, if you are feeling like a DIY superhero, you can build your own! I’ve published the template under a Creative Commons share-alike license on my blog so others can tinker and modify.