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de Youngsters Studio: Make a View Camera a “Portal on the Past” Inspired by Willard Worden

Introduction

Did you know that you can make a view camera using simple materials you may have at home? It’s not a camera that you can take pictures with, but it can help you see the world around you in an amazing new way. A view camera also helps you understand how photography works. 

Collection Connection

This project was inspired by photographer Willard Worden (1868–1946), and an exhibition of his photographs titled Portals of the Past: The Photographs of Willard Worden that was at the de Young in 2015.

Settling in San Francisco in 1901, Worden photographed San Francisco: Ocean Beach, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Golden Gate Park with the Memorial Museum (which later became the de Young) and the Japanese Tea Garden. He even photographed the city in the midst of the Great Earthquake of 1906. One striking image shows the meager remains of the destroyed Towne Mansion—a columned portico entrance—photographed in situ before being moved to Golden Gate Park to become what is now known as The Portals of the Past.

Watch How to Make a View Camera

Willard Worden, The Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, 1910
Willard Worden, The Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, 1910

Materials

  • Magnifying glass
  • Cardboard box (approx. between 5 x 5 in. and 12 x 12 in.)
  • White paper
  • Pencil or marker
  • Notepad
  • Ruler
  • Utility knife
  • Black paper or black paint (helps darken the box and brighten the image)
  • Sheet of wax paper 
  • Tape and/or large rubber bands 
  • Glue or glue stick

Optional:

  • Dark towel or pillowcase to put over your head to see the brightest images. This is especially important if you take your camera outside.
  • Phone to take pictures or videos of what you see appearing on your camera. 

Questions to Consider 

  • How did people make pictures before they had smartphones?
  • What do cameras do? How do they work?
  • What did cameras look like in the past?
  • What do you take for granted about cameras today?

Steps

Find your lens’s focal length

1. Hold a magnifying glass (lens) near an open window, while holding a white surface (like cardboard with white paper taped on it) behind it. A lens is used to focus the light and make the picture sharp. 

de Youngsters Studio: Make a View Camera a “Portal on the Past” Inspired by Willard Worden

2. Move the white surface toward and away from the lens until the image is sharp and clear.

3. Measure the distance between the lens and the white surface that renders the sharpest image. This is your focal length. Write this down in your notepad. 

Make your camera

4. Use your ruler and pencil to make an X at the center of one side of the box.

5. Trace the outer rim of your magnifying glass in the center of the X.

de Youngsters Studio: Make a View Camera a “Portal on the Past” Inspired by Willard Worden

6. Using a utility knife, cut out the circle slightly smaller than your lens—this is your aperture or the part of the camera that lets the light through.

7. Cut the length of the box to match your lens’s focal length. To do this, measure your box from the aperture side going back. Example: if your lens is focused with a clear image at 6 inches from the white surface, then cut your box to be 6 inches long from the aperture to the open end.

de Youngsters Studio: Make a View Camera a “Portal on the Past” Inspired by Willard Worden

8. Black out the inside of your box. Paint it black, or glue black paper, cut to fit. If using paper, be sure to cut out the hole to expose the aperture, and leave the backside open.

9. Stretch wax paper over the open end of your box and secure it with rubber bands or tape. This surface is called your focal plane. The focal plane is where the light lands and you see your picture.

de Youngsters Studio: Make a View Camera a “Portal on the Past” Inspired by Willard Worden

10. Tape your magnifying glass over the aperture.

11. Now go investigate the world using your camera. Point the aperture/lens side at what you want to view, and look for the image on the wax paper side. To make the image brighter, you can experiment by putting a dark cloth over your head just as they did in the 1900s.
 

IMPORTANT NOTE

Never leave a magnifying glass in the sun or in a sunny window. It can get very hot. 

Be very careful if you move around with your camera. It’s very easy to trip, knock something over, or step into something, as you won’t be able to see where your feet and body are going. If you use a headcover to get the brightest image, always have someone with you.

Reflect  

After creating your camera, consider the following questions: 

  • Were you able to get your view camera to show an image?
  • What conditions made for the best image?
  • What is different about this camera vs. a phone camera?

Share

Once you find the best image, get someone to take a picture of the image with a phone. Can you take a portrait of someone through your homemade camera?

We would love to see what you create! Email pictures of your artwork to families@famsf.org or tag us on any social platform with #deyoungsters.
 

Image credits:

Willard Worden, The Memorial Museum, Golden Gate Park, ca. 1910–1915. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 10 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (26.7 x 34.3 cm). Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Dr. Robert Shimshak, A82.107.35 

Willard Worden, The Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, 1910. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 23 1/8 in. (28 x 58.7 cm). Courtesy of the California Historical Society, CHS2015.2021 

Process photographs by Raphael Noz