Picture This: Camera Obscura
Photographer Ian Kasnoff turns a trailer into a camera to capture state park landscapes.
By Earl Nottingham
Artists of the 17th century referred to it as camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”) — a giant pinhole camera. In a completely darkened room, a small hole in one wall allowed outside light to project a clear (but upside-down) image of the outside scene to the opposite wall.
The images could then be traced and used as references for artwork. In time, the cameras became smaller and more portable, heralding the first designs of modern photographic cameras. Lenses gradually replaced pinholes to produce brighter and sharper images.
Present-day artist, photographer and movie production designer Ian Kasnoff is an anachronism, shunning modern digital equipment and embracing the simplicity of camera obscura with his traveling “trailer cam.” The 16-foot enclosed trailer provides a darkened room; a lens can be attached to a small opening at one end. Inside, there’s a movable frame for holding and exposing photographic paper (up to 33.5 by 42 inches) and a traditional “wet” darkroom for developing the images.
Unlike using a typical camera that hangs around the neck or fits in a pocket, shooting a scene with the trailer cam involves extensive planning to find locations that are accessible for a rig of its size and a lot of fine-tuning the composition by turning and tilting the trailer by hand. No snapshots here.
Through his large-format black-and-white prints, Kasnoff captures the essence of both people and places. Resembling early tintype photography, his portraits of people are detailed and intimate, inviting the viewer to see past the eyes and into the essence of the individual. His landscape images take on an ethereal, often otherworldly look that allows us to see an often-familiar location in a unique and visually poetic manner. Texas state parks are some of his favorite subjects because of their distinct landscapes and ease of access.
What drives a man to convert a trailer into a camera? Kasnoff says it all came to him during dinner one night when he was trying to decide whether to use an old 8-foot-long trailer in his yard as a camper or for storage. In an “Aha!” moment, he hit upon the idea of a traveling camera obscura. From that first trailer cam, he has now graduated to his third trailer, one that gives him the space and tools to create larger prints.
The time, effort and cost to shoot and process just one 20-by-24 image add up quickly, so every effort is made to get it right the first time. Kasnoff is a true craftsman at work. With concentration and attention to detail, he painstakingly rereads the light meter and composes, exposes and processes these unique images with an ethic instilled in him by his father and grandfather, both professional photographers.
“Each picture is a sum of all the hours, the good ideas, the bad ideas and the happy accidents,” Kasnoff says. “You continually practice your craft, whether it’s songwriting, painting or photography — and sometimes the stars align.”
See more of Kasnoff’s photography at www.iankasnoff.com.
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