Box reminds of life’s magic

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 29, 1999

Technology has become so pervasive in our world, sometimes it’s a bit difficult to see how much it encircles us.

Computers and electronics are everywhere. I have a cellular phone and a pager either attached to my body, or within arm’s reach – almost 24 hours a day.

I can be tracked down in the corner of the most backwoods area imaginable. Being constantly accessible is both handy and a hindrance.

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And all of this technological wizardry has a cost – we sometimes lose the importance of basic communication and we lose the basic understanding of how things work.

It’s nice to know as the Y2K bug looms large, some of the simplest processes still produce remarkable results.

A couple of years ago, a friend gave me pinhole camera as a Christmas present. Although the camera was a tad nicer than the pinhole cameras students sometimes make out of empty oatmeal boxes the principal is the same.

While the camera fascinated me, it sat on a shelf for a few years collecting dust. It had no practical purpose that I could see.

The little box doesn’t have a lens, only a piece of metal with a tiny hole machined in it. It doesn’t have a motor drive or light meter. It is just about as stripped down of a camera as is possible in 1999.

It is photography at its simplest – light striking film.

As far as I was concerned, it was pretty much a useless wooden box. I couldn’t take photographs to be published in the newspaper with it, so why bother?

Well, the other day wisdom got the better of me, and I realized that the point of the little camera wasn’t to make pictures for other people, but to make pictures just to make pictures. That little box is about the process not the result.

So with newly found intelligence, I pulled that little wooden box off the shelf after years.

After scrounging around for some film – it takes single 4-inch by 5-inch sheets of film, not the kind that you can pick up at any store – I headed out to make some low-tech pictures.

With no moving parts, the film is exposed by removing a tiny wooden cap that fits over the pinhole. As the seconds ticked off on my watch, the light made its way through the tiny hole and slowly burned an image onto the film.

With slow, calculating precision, I took exposures of 16 seconds to one minute with the little camera, all the while, not exactly knowing what I was shooting. You see, the camera has no viewfinder either. It’s all just a guesstimate.

And perhaps the most important part of going low-tech is the darkroom work. One-hour photo labs don’t often process 4-inch by 5-inch sheet film, so if I wanted it processed, it would be up to me to do it.

I hadn’t used any black and white chemistry in years. After a little fishing around, I found some chemistry and proceeded to play junior alchemist and mix up the long-forgotten brew.

The nose-curling smell of the chemicals sent me back to the early days when, as a teenager, I’d made my first black and white print.

When I saw that first print emerge from the developer I was hooked. It was magic pure and simple.

Unfortunately I’d almost forgotten the magic until I dusted off that little wooden box and remembered the process that got me started several years ago. From now on, I’ll always try to remember to spend some time focusing on the low-tech magic in life and less on the technology.

Kevin Cooper is managing editor of The Democrat. He can be reached at (601) 446-5172 ext. 241 or by e-mail: