Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Populist: a derivative.

I should preface this post with this cartoon which appeared in an issue of the CoEvolution Quarterly, a magazine published from 1974 to 1985, founded by Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog. This cartoon has been displayed somewhere in our house ever since (Hand colored by Sarah)

Shortly after I posted the directions for the Populist on-line, an editor from Barnes and Noble sent a message to Gregg Kemp's Pinhole Visions email list indicating that they were thinking of producing a package with a book on Pinhole Photography that included a kit with everything you needed to make a pinhole camera, and could anyone recommend a paper engineer to help them out.

I responded that I was certainly no paper engineer (if you follow this blog you know just how funny that idea is), but just to get some idea of the kind of thing that was available for free on-line, sent them the link to the Populist

Much to my surprise, she responded several months later and asked if I would like to be involved in the project. I was concerned that if I did, I would have to take down the on-line version, which would have been philosophically distasteful  (after all, it is a camera anyone can make). Her response was that the populations who might buy a kit browsing in a Barnes & Noble and those downloading plans on the internet didn't overlap very much. And they offered me money for it.  Not enough to retire on, but enough to make Christmas a lot more fun that year. 

They just wanted the rights to use the design but they'd like me to kibbitz on what they did with it. We worked together on and off for about six months.

It came out in time for the 2009 holiday season as Create your own pinhole camera bundled with the  book Adventures with pinhole and home made cameras by John Evans which they had previously published in 2003. The book is pretty comprehensive and well done, but it's kind of obvious that the kit and book weren't done as an integrated piece. I'm not credited anywhere, nor is the Populist mentioned as the basis for the camera.

It's still available on-line for $16.99.  It's got eight reviews with an average rating of 3.9 so it must work, although one of the reviews criticizes the recommendations for exposure.

The directions booklet follows the outline for the Populist pretty well, but all the photographs were redone with the materials from the kit of course, and the text rewritten by a professional copywriter. There's still a little bit of my text in there.  It's really pretty well done.

The camera you see in the photo at the top of this post isn't made from the kit.  They sent me a proof printed on the final material before they made the final dies to cut it out, so I had to cut the parts out with an X-acto knife. It all went together all right and no changes were necessary in the final product. They didn't include any pinholes, and I never exposed any film in it.  I've never put together the final product they sent me,

There are some changes from the original Populist design. They didn't like the idea of the corners being taped because they wanted it to look like a real camera. The box is held together with glueing flaps. I had considered that for the Populist, but I was concerned about the corners being light tight, and if you were going to cover them with opaque tape, the flaps weren't necessary to hold the box together. They did include a roll of black tape and the directions indicate to use it in the internal box, but the tape is no where near opaque.  Since the film in the side chambers is enclosed in a cassette, I've often wondered if the opaque tape was necessary on the corners and have been meaning to make a camera with clear tape to find out. Since no reviews said anything  about light leaks, it's probably not a problem.

Another change was the addition of a second winder and the placement of the rewind hole on the top.  In the original Populist, I thought making a second winder was an unnecessary hassle, and I put the rewind hole on the bottom so it would rewind in the same direction as for winding and suggested just inserting a piece of card stock between the two boxes to cover it except when rewinding. 

One change they made that I'm not too thrilled with was the addition of a frame at the top of the shutter to act as a handle, and as the viewfinder.  On the Populist I include viewfinding triangles to go on the top and sides of the camera.

To be honest, if you put your eye up to the back of a camera as you would with an SLR, it does include just about what the camera will capture.  In this day of people viewfinding through phones and LCD panels on the back of the camera I don't think a lot of people will be doing that.  And if you think of the common ways this camera is going to be supported, sitting on some table or bench, maybe supported by a tabletop tripod, getting your head in the right place is going to be nearly impossible. I'm also a big fan of closeups and this is also going to introduce a fair amount of parallax error if you do look through it. It's kind of floppy and I don't think it would survive many trips in and out of a pocket, and (this is one of those times that sound more like a religious argument) its not very pinholey.

They wanted to include two sizes of pinhole and a blank piece of brass to drill your own pinhole.  In order to accommodate that, I suggested a new part to attach the pinhole to which snugly slides inside the exposure chamber with folded flaps that held the pinhole tightly in the front of the camera.

The pinholes they included are supposed to be .2 and .15mm and look to be fairly close so I'm not sure about the criticism in one review that exposures in bright sun required minutes rather than seconds. They appear to be drilled either with a laser or an electric spark. Until I started writing this post, I had never gotten them out and looked at them. I hate to say this, but they're really terrible pinholes. They appear to be roughly the right size, but they both have really ragged edges. The larger one seems to have a raised blister around it, and the smaller one is more semicircular than round. Almost anyone with the least bit of care could drill a better pinhole. I suppose to be fair, I should put them in a camera and try them out.

When it was first released my son saw it on a shelf in a Barnes and Noble in Boston, but otherwise I've never seen any mention of anyone using it, and never seen one mentioned in a post to the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day gallery.  About a year after it was released, I asked how it was doing and they said it was OK.  It's sales rank on Barnes and Noble is 93,217, but they sell a lot of books so that doesn't really mean anything.

Last year I was sent a request to put a link on the Pinhole Day site resources page from someone in Italy and was surprised to see the camera featured on the home page, so I guess it's gotten around.

If anybody has used one, I'd be curious to hear about it.

I've always been a little perplexed by the design on the front, but recently realized it was a stylized version of looking straight on to a bellows folder.  You know, a real camera.

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