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Forgotten Treasure  Longest exposed pinhole photograph

8 year long exposure pinhole photograph © Regina Valkenborgh 2020

What if you set-up a make-shift pinhole camera, and forget all about it? And, find it some 8 years later still intact. It gets better. What if you find that it has been working till then, waiting for someone to close its shutter?

Regina Valkenborgh, in August 2012 was experimenting with home-made pinhole cameras and attached one to the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory dome. The camera was constructed from duct tape, a 500ml Kopparberg cider can. She had opted for the cider can, for they produce bigger images because of its size. The cider can was lined with Ilford Multigrade photographic paper. Her plan was to get back to it after 6 months or so. But, as providence would demand, she forgot about it, finished her degree, and moved on with her life. Presently, she is working as a technician at Barnet and Southgate College, London. In September 2020, she was contacted by Observatory’s Principal Technical officer, David Campbell, informing her about this forgotten camera. All along, the camera pointing towards the horizon was recording the sun rising and falling, eight full cycles of them, exposed through a pinhole aperture onto the photographic paper inside the cider can.  The image inside was successfully retrieved to reveal the extraordinary trajectory of the sun’s path across the sky -rising and falling with the seasons.

Regina Valkenborgh with her cider can camera in front of the observatory domes

With eight years and one-month long exposure, this could be the longest pinhole photographic exposure ever made. There have been earlier year-long and 6-month long exposure pinhole photographs. The camera obscura or pinhole image is a natural optical phenomenon. Early known descriptions are found in the Chinese Mozi writings (circa 500 BCE) and the Aristotelian Problems (circa 300 BCE – 600 CE). It seems the early travelers had accidentally stumbled upon this phenomenon when a hole through their tents created reverse images. Many theories and formulations had gone in before it became developed as a full-fledged technique. Ibn al-Haytham (965–1039), an Arab physicist and astronomer, referred to as the father of modern optics was the first to thoroughly study and describe the camera obscura effect.  Haythem had a diagram depicting observations of light’s behavior through a pinhole. Over the centuries others started to experiment with it, mainly in dark rooms with a small opening in shutters, mostly to study the nature of light and to safely watch solar eclipses. The first known description of pinhole photography is found in the 1856 book The Stereoscope by Scottish inventor David Brewster, including the description of the idea as “a camera without lenses, and with only a pin-hole”. By the fifteenth century, artists were using portable camera obscura with lenses as an aid to drawing. With chemical experimentation of the early nineteenth century, it was the ideal tool for WedgwoodTalbot, and others to try and secure a permanent image using chemistry and optics.

Toronto Skyline, 1 year long exposure pinhole photograph © Chrisman 2012

While initially, long exposures were indeed a hurdle owing to the low sensitivity of the Daguerre plates. Today, they are not a limitation per se, rather a preference for their artistic dimension. The long exposure images demonstrate the ability to control shutter speeds and record movement to creative effect – essentially to ‘see,’ then capture, what isn’t immediately visible. But longer terms are exposures are relatively rarer – often involving long periods of waiting, something which is big deal for a modern-day photographer. Today, a minute fraction of a second is all that is required to make multiple shots. 8 years, is definitely a long shot.

“It was a stroke of luck that the picture was left untouched, to be saved by David after all these years. I had tried this technique a couple of times at the Observatory before, but the photographs were often ruined by moisture and the photographic paper curled up. I hadn’t intended to capture an exposure for this length of time and to my surprise, it had survived. It could be one of, if not the, longest exposures in existence,” says Regina Valkenborgh who is thrilled by this rather unexpected finding. For long exposure to be really successful, it is important for the camera to static. In this case, it is again a case of pure luck – and actually contradicted Valkenborgh’s intentions for the image. She says she placed the camera on the dome to capture the “movement in the sun’s trails” when the device it was mounted on was “spun around to look at different parts of the sky.” As it happened, it didn’t move much at all.

6 month long exposure pinhole photograph © Matt Bigwood 2013

“The dome it was attached to was never really utilized in that way,” says Campbell. “It was an atmospheric instrument in 2012, but In 2013, a telescope was put in there instead. This meant that the dome would really only move during the night and return to almost exactly the same position by the time the sun rose.” Campbell concedes that there would be the “odd time the dome moved during the day  – maintenance, faults, etc.” These minor interruptions are recorded in the image as minor changes and breaks in the sun’s streaks, such as in the bottom right-hand corner. But one aspect is undoubtedly dominant, with Campbell adding that “99% of the time the camera was in more-or-less the same position over 8 years.”

Regina’s original intent was to explore the time concept in photography which makes the invisible, visible.“However, what’s more unique about this is that although the invisible has been captured, it has also erased the visible. Over the years, you’re able to see the sun trails, however, you’re unable to see the thousands of people who would have visited or worked at the observatory,” she adds.

In any case, for years to come, this photograph will be referred back to. As of today, it is one of its kind. What a treasure a forgotten camera could create? In the west, long exposure photographs are becoming a kind of trend. There are several experiments using pin-hole as well as other traditional methods.  We hope, there are such experiments in our country as well. It surely is an area that demands further experimentation and exploration.