Pulling Out The Plug / Yurt Works

(An illustrated presentation to the HEA on creative sustainability within the curriculum.)

Good Morning and I am so pleased to have been given the opportunity to talk about the work we have undertaken through a Futures Initative Award. The Department of Media, Art and Design at CCCU – and specifically the Photography Programme -  has benefited from F.I. Funding. 

The award has allowed us to purchase a bespoke Yurt or to give it its true name -  a Gur- a tent that has been used subsequently as both mobile darkroom and camera obscura. 

As a mobile darkroom – the yurt provides a dark space, lit by just a little red safety light - in which to produce photographic images 


as a camera obscura – the yurt provides a dark/dark space into the image from outside is brought insid through the use of a lens, the outside reflected within the tent itself – Narnia…

But I am getting a little ahead of myself and I think it would be useful to just spend a couple of minutes on context: 

Firstly, prior to the award being made, the taught Photography Programme, whilst principally teaching using cutting edge digital equipment, nevertheless had a strong curriculum strand which examined traditional – not digital – methods of light and image capture. Importantly as a teaching team we never promoted this as a means of constructing an opposition to contemporary digital practice – never for example connoting one as superior to the other, it wasn’t film vs digital! - rather we sought to reveal through practice, that innovative and creative technologies had been utilised by image-makers long before the arrival of digital screens or electrical power supplies. Indeed the analogue has of course influenced much of our contemporary digital practice and our digital discourse.

But, prior to the yurt, all of this learning took place on and within CCCU’s satalite campus. The Campus is very limiting in terms of being creative environment; it is very technology driven with almost all of our teaching spaces filled with divine macs and this technology is then added to with undergraduates - and of course tutors - arriving with their own macbooks, smartphones and ipads etc. 

It is very difficult to abstract oneself from such a screenbased environment – I would perhaps take this further and say a screenbased culture – and prior to the award we would have to build camera obscuras in teaching spaces – cluttered rooms where, as we attempted to black out – remember the camera obscura has to be a blacked out space -  but -  as we attempted to achieve this, tiny electrical lights would glisten green, blue, amber and red from the pulsating macs or the overhead projectors or the overhead projector’s control pad; or from smoke alarms or the numerous hardrives – and even if we gaffered over all of that, there was still the sounds of the digitsed room – listen (we can hear the electrical / digital ambient sounds) – great when teaching contemporary material – dire when wanting stillness (not silence) but stillness and darkness…

The idea for a yurt as mobile darkroom and camera obscura is a plagiarised one... I was already very familiar with the photographic artist Abe Morrell. Abe has produced work using camera obscuras in beautiful, luxurious hotel rooms in Venice / New York / Sydney… London etc. But he too yearned to leave the constructed and go back to a more basic approach. And here is what he calls his ‘camera tent’ in Florence and this other one is in NY. The tent has a lens right on the top and this brings in the outside – refracted into the tent. And this on the right is what Abe is seeing and then photographing on the floor of the camera obscura.

Notice all the artefacts on the image – he uses the ground where the camera tent is placed as the base for the image-making. So, if the pavement is marked these marks are seen in the final picture. Likewise if he used the tent in a desert the sand would be visible – thus the place and space of image–making is pushed to the fore. 

So, we commissioned a yurt and we initially built our own lens to allow the outside in. This wasn’t as bright as we had hoped and in the following year we were awarded some more funds to buy a bespoke lens for the camera obscura.

Talk through the images… 


This film was produced very early:

So how have we actually used it?

Talk through slides:

As noted in the film, the yurt is used as both camera obscura and darkroom by our Y1 photography undergraduates as part of their curriculum; it is used by our Part II students (Y2 and 3) for individual projects. They can book it out and take it off site to work. And it has been used by the Programme teaching team as a form of KE and community engagement.

This has included working with the highly regarded Turner Contemporary Gallery at Margate – the gallery is located right at the seas shoreand there we have provided a number youth and school workshops and also antique photographic process demonstrations – for example wet plate photography. Such work is only possible with a mobile darkroom, wet plate photography requires processing prior to the photographic plate drying so time is of the essence…

As photography tutors we have the annual joy of seeing numerous students working in the darkroom for the very first time. If you have never experienced this yourself it might be difficult to imagine – but there remains something magical about being in a darkroom – with a little bit of red safety light to help you see where you are going. As a tutor, you see a student slip for the first time a piece of exposedphotographic paper into the development tray and there, in front of their eyes their image begins to appear – at first a hazy suggestion and then as the seconds and minutes tick by, up and up it comes into the recognisable image. The first time this happens students will often gasp or giggle in sheer delight. Any pretence of cool on their part is jettisoned. It’s chemistry – but in those early moments it feels magical. 

The yurt has taken that experience and amplified it. It abstracts the user – be that tutor, student, curious member of the public who happens to be passing by, school group – who ever – but it abstracts them… If demonstrating the camera obscura we first enter into darkness. A total – can’t see the hand in front of your face darkness – the initial response is normally one of noise – whoops of excitement / expletives as someone knocks into or treds onto their near neighbour – a little bit of silliness – and we just wait. Over the chatter we quietly introduce the large disc on which the image will be reflected and ask that all those inside the Yurt take hold – someone inevitably always says ‘it’s like a séance’ and that creates another wave of silly spooky sounds and excited shrieks – but we know these will settle. And then, then there is quiet and we wait – we seldom have to even encourage them to hold this silence – they have moved into a different frame of mind and we stand in the darkness / in the silence and we are stilled. At that point one of us quietly reaches up and opens the lens and the outside is bought in. Regardless of how prosaic the location, the result is always the same – no more excited squeals / no more expletives – but gasps and then quiet almost reverential discussion of what is seen. The world – their world is made strange – they are literally placed within the camera.

That experience has a legacy – after use the students, most of whom of course will elect to work principally digitally, not only have a respect for past technologies, but also an understanding of where much of their own digital practice and terminology is rooted. And for those students utterly seduced by the experience they then have the knowledge and understanding to make use of the yurt and to bend this extraordinary resource to their own creative needs and purposes. For us, this award -  this resource-  fascilitates the presence of the past into contemporary and future practice.

Thank you