German tech-artist Niklas Roy, a self-described “inventor of useless things,” has been tinkering with a new project: “Electronic Instant Camera”. This slow, clunky machine that combines a video camera and a thermal printer to create one-of-a-kind portraits. The result: “something in between a Polaroid camera and a digital camera,” according to Roy.
As the camera takes in digital information, a receipt printer slowly inks out a pixilated monochromatic image onto a roll of paper. The digital video camera has nearly no memory to speak of, only a tiny 1kb SCRAM to hold information downloaded by the lens—not even enough memory for a single frame of video. Roy is delighted that “the camera really has to forget the content of each line after it printed it on paper – in order to have enough space for capturing the next line.”
Suffice to say that the Electronic Instant Camera is not a terribly practical piece of equipment, though that might be the point. Roy has successfully created an outdated, primitive instrument using extremely contemporary image-making tools. Roy’s blog post left us wondering why, and he was happy to take our questions:
IMSO: Where did you start with this project?
This project really started as simple as I wrote on my webpage: I had this thermal printing unit lying around in my workshop and I knew that I also had this video camera module in one of my random parts boxes. So basically, I was curious about what kind of instant camera they both would make together.
IMSO: Did you purposefully embrace the constraints of a tiny 1kb memory, or was the result – a ‘forgetful’ camera – pure serendipity?
As there’s no way to connect a video camera directly to a printing unit, it was clear that I had to develop some interfacing electronics. I used a microcontroller for that purpose. You can imagine this as a little computer on one microchip. It has everything that you need: Inputs, outputs, RAM, ROM and a processor. There’s one controller that I like in particular, as it is very cheap (less than 2?) and powerful enough for almost everything that I make. I could have used a larger controller for that camera. One that has enough memory to store one or more full images. But again, I had a couple of those cheap controllers lying around. So I preferred to build that camera with the parts that I had anyway.
When I built that camera, I was certainly aware that its image quality would be somehow ‘special’. The interesting thing of storing only one line and printing it directly after it was captured, is, that it opens doors for slitscan experiments (and glitchy results). First, I was very excited about making those kinds of studies. But I have to admit, that now, after I made a whole bunch of experiments with the camera, I prefer to shoot portraits with it, with a tripod and where the subject tries not to move. I really like the dithered faces.
IMSO: The camera’s production time is quite long for an “instant” device, but the product is irreproducible and ephemeral, printed on common receipt paper. Why not produce a more durable image?
Yes, it’s true: The images on the thermal receipt paper disappear relatively quick. But only, if they’re exposed to UV light. So in order to keep the images for a long time, they should be stored in a dark place. And no one should ever look at them. I consider that as an interesting quality.
IMSO: “Electronic Instant Camera” seems to have a lot to do with expectation: sitting still for three minutes while the portrait is produced, watching the little printer as it slowly reveals the image, and waiting to scrutinize a photo of oneself. What do you intend (or expect) your subjects to think about as they have their portraits taken?
I don’t have any expectations about what the subjects which are photographed should think during the process of taking a picture. But when I take photos of myself, it usually takes me a while to understand what is depicted in particular. As the camera starts to print from the bottom, the first things that appear are usually abstract wrinkles in the clothes and I’m all curious about understanding the photo. This curiosity switches within one moment to excitement. It is the very moment, in which I start to ‘understand’ the picture. It’s interesting that this happens very often exactly when the eyes are printed.
IMSO: Your project takes a lot of complicated electronics (complicated at least to someone like me, who struggles with the mechanics of a toaster) and boils them down into a pointedly low-tech instrument. How did you come to use video, which is at the height of digital imaging technology, to create a rather crude picture?
Well, I would not consider b/w video with PAL resolution as the height of digital imaging technology. We’re only talking about one of those cheap surveillance camera modules here (which is actually analog and not digital, just to be precise). Even if it is used in the way it is meant to be used, the image quality of this camera module is not exactly stunning.
But the point is probably a different one: What makes the Electronic Instant Camera interesting, is not only the long time that it takes to shoot a photo, but also the special quality of the outcome. Nowadays, digital cameras are often judged by their resolution. Higher resolution is considered as better quality. But quality means character and this cannot be measured in the same way in which pixel quantity can be counted. Quality deals with individuality. And that’s the point where the crude visual outcome of my camera becomes interesting.
IMSO: What’s next? Are you planning to expand on the forgetful camera, or are you tinkering with something completely different?
The next thing will be a water powered music machine. Not related to photography at all. But even if it will deal with sound, I guess I’ll take some photos of it and publish them on my website.
Article and Interview Sydney Smith
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