You could call it the wide-angle definition of photography. St. Mary’s Hall photography teacher Ralph Howell has made cameras out of coconuts, old lunchboxes, vegetables just about any hollow object that can be made lightproof and punctured with a pin. His application of the pinhole camera to his San Antonio school’s curriculum has been just as inclusive.
With the idea that students in many of the private K-12 school’s classes could benefit from a look at “what’s hidden behind conventional representation,” as Howell puts it, this past spring he transformed a carnival wagon used as a school-musical prop into a camera obscura Latin for “darkened room.” In effect, he created a walk-in pinhole camera, allowing creative writing, visual arts, and physics classes, as well as his own photography students, to experience the dreamlike, upside-down images projected inside. “Almost all of the students reacted with surprise and awe,” Howell says.
Taking as their starting point the 5-foot-by-7-foot images projected inside the giant camera through the pinhole, Howell and other teachers created a series of interdisciplinary class projects. Drawing classes sketched the sometimes surreal scenes. Creative writing classes came up with narratives exploring the idea of perspective. Physics classes studied light and the way the eye processes images. “I used pinhole photography before, but now it all comes together,” said freshman Brittany Meyer, whose physics and photography classes both participated in the project. “It’s a whole different perspective, and the fish-eye image it produces is so different from anything else,” said senior Katie Pace, who was part of St. Mary’s creative writing class.
Howell hopes to eventually stage a cross-curricular exhibit of student work inspired by the camera, and he plans to continue the project this school year with any teacher who shares his fascination for its ability to reframe the boundaries of a subject. Pinhole cameras are “anything but routine. They give me a lot of room for experimentation, and the photographic results are often surprising,” he says. “The process keeps me going.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Unified Vision