A camera made out of a butternut squash? That’s not even the weirdest of Brendan Barry’s creations
From the impressive to the downright ridiculous, there’s seemingly nothing that’s safe from being turned into a camera by Brendan.
What do a block of cheese, a watermelon, a postbox, a caravan and a skyscraper all have in common? The answer is that they’ve all been turned into cameras by Brendan Barry. The Devon-based photographer and educator has built up quite a reputation for making cameras out of, well, anything.
“I’m just playing basically,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I spend all the time just playing, experimenting and seeing if something works.” Brendan’s camera-making exploits have seen him travel to different continents, feature in documentaries, and provide countless workshops and public installations. Not bad for something he started as a summer project to pass the time.
Before turning his hand to making these weird and wonderful creations, Brendan began his photographic journey like most people do. He learned his trade at Plymouth University under the tutelage of Jem Southam, but after taking pretty much any paid work he could get, he quickly realised he was falling out of love with the medium. “I didn’t want the pressure of having to make a living to compromise it,” he says.
At the time he wanted to continue his involvement in photography, without being a photographer. This eventually led him into teaching, which he still did at Exeter College until January 2020, the experimental Dartmoor Summer School of Photography and the non-profit Positive Light Project. It was actually during one school holiday early on in his teaching career that he had his camera-making eureka moment.
“During an American road trip I kind of felt like I was playing the role of a photographer. I always felt my work was a bit derivative of the people I was influenced and inspired by,” he says. “It was just a man on the side of the road with a large-format camera who looks at things. Although I’m really proud of some of the pictures I took, it didn’t really feel like I was offering anything new to the genre.”
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Turning the the 44th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper into a camera
By the time his next break came about, Brendan had no money to go abroad, and coupled with a dwindling desire to shoot, he decided to make a camera instead. It’s since proved to be quite a good decision. “I built this big 16x20-inch camera – I only built one that big because I figured it’d be a lot easier. You have to be less precise, so I could allow myself a larger margin for error,” he recalls.
The project reignited Brendan’s passion for photography, but his focus was now more on the processes that underpin it as opposed to the images themselves. “When the image appears on the screen or in the developing tray, that’s the high point for me,” he says. “After that I kind of lose interest, and it’s a bit of an anticlimax. I’m now extending that process and making it more and more complex.”
After making and testing this first giant camera, he took it to the ISSP festival in Latvia, going on to take part in workshops there with Taiyo Onorato, the Swiss photographer famed for his collaboration with fellow Swiss artist Nico Krebs. The experience was an extremely positive one for Brendan, and it was on the drive home from the festival that he had his next idea for a project, setting in motion the events that have seen him create cameras ever since.
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The Cheese Camera
“That was where I had the idea for the caravan. I got back and [the following summer] ended up buying one for 150 quid off eBay,” he recalls, explaining how it took around three weeks to transform it from a mobile home into an image-making machine. “By the next summer I took it down to the quay near where I lived, and just put it there for a couple of weeks. That’s where everything kind of clicked, and the things I love most about photography all came together in one space. I’d say that experience has led to all the other things basically.”
Since then, Brendan has refined the process and adapted it to a variety of objects, both large and small. “Effectively what I’m doing is creating a camera obscura, whether that’s in a fixed space like a skyscraper, or something moveable like a caravan,” says Brendan. The simplicity of this has allowed him to experiment with all kinds of ludicrous objects, including food. “I was just walking past a fruit and veg shop and saw a pineapple and just thought, ‘Yeah, you can make a camera out of that!’” he says. “That’s how most of those playful ones come about. Any time I actually try to think of something I could turn into a camera, it never happens.”
It will surprise you how few criteria there are for an object to be deemed camera-suitable by Brendan – he pretty much only requires space to fit a lens, and a light-seal. This actually makes objects like a television or a block of cheese perfect candidates (he also points out that the latter provides many opportunities for “say cheese” puns, too).
With such an open mind when it comes to what a camera actually is, Brendan has created them in all shapes and sizes, using a vast range of camera equipment to do so. His Butternut Squash Camera, for instance, actually uses a 35mm SLR body for its rear. This means that you could in theory take pictures with it like you would a standard camera – however, the giant root vegetable in the middle would probably rule out any inconspicuous street photography.
Some of his food-based cameras have accommodated larger film too. The Loaf of Bread Camera and the Pineapple Camera (which is even complete with a shutter release cord) are fine examples of this. Aside from food he has also made cameras out of Lego, gazebos, an accordion, a mannequin, a table, a… you probably get the picture.
The process of making all these cameras is well documented on his website, and displays the surprising simplicity with which it can be done. All that is often needed are a few camera parts, a hollowed-out object, and lots of tape – a brilliant demonstration of how basic a camera can actually be. That doesn’t take away from the sheer ridiculousness of it all, which is something you are reminded of when you see the admittedly meta image of the Lego Camera seen through the viewfinder of the Accordion Camera – who would have ever thought that could be a sentence?
GalleryBrendan shot by Luke & Nik
His latest project was on a slightly larger scale than something you’d find in a supermarket or a toy shop. In fact, it was about the same size as a supermarket or a toy shop, and involved turning the 44th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper into a camera for a charity commission, produced by Favourite Child Creative. “That was an amazing phone call!” he laughs. “I told them I could do it in any old space, I'd just need a little bit more gaffa tape…”
Tasked with transforming a Park Avenue office floor into a working camera, Brendan applied the principles he uses for all his other cameras, adapting them to a much greater space. “We shot onto large 50-inch-wide and 4x8-foot sheets from rolls of photographic paper,” he says. “We were making these giant paper negatives, then placing them on top of another piece of paper and squeezing them together, then getting people to wave their iPhone torches over as a rudimentary enlarger. It was quite lo-fi, but the negatives are amazing.”
As well as this, Brendan also explored the use of direct positive paper, which involved using a large lens capturing straight onto the paper, meaning there was no need for a negative or an enlarger. “There's just something great about this particular combination of the lens and the paper, because there’s no enlargement,” says Brendan. “The details are amazing, you can read the number plates of cars on the street 40-odd floors below. It’s weird because it kind of renders more information than you can see with the human eye. It’s almost as if you took 1,000 macro pictures and put them together on a grid, bringing lots of really detailed images together into one.”
The sheer audacity of the project can be perfectly illustrated by the fact that the paper was far too large to use existing darkroom materials with. “I had to make everything myself, and I had to get the materials specially made, because you just can’t buy things like that in hardware shops,” he says.
Working at this scale may have made things tricky to build, but the benefits were numerous, not least from an education perspective. Let’s be honest, what better place is there to learn photography than sitting inside a camera? “They are powerful as a teaching tool, especially when demonstrating the relationship between aperture and shutter speeds,” he says. “It can be quite hard to get your head around, but in this case you can actually see the light changing or the depth of field.”
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The Priory Primary School shot by The Caravan Camera
Despite the cameras being an impressive feat in themselves, Brendan’s work stands for something more than just the objects and the images. “These kinds of cameras break down the preconceptions of what a camera actually is, and what it can do,” says Brendan. “When doing workshops, I always take the time to swap the lens with a magnifying glass from Poundland. It ultimately shows the students that they can do all this in their bedroom for less than £20.”
He goes on to reiterate the importance of this in a time when photography is becoming increasingly digitised, and when we are becoming increasingly removed from the process of creating an image. “That understanding of the relationship [between aperture and shutter speed] is being lost, but obviously once you have that knowledge it opens up the possibilities of what you can do creatively with pictures,” he says. “I’m not working in opposition to digital, but it’s offering an alternative. Choice is a wonderful thing.”
Brendan’s cameras are actually becoming such a viable alternative that he feels like he is at a stage where he could start to make a series of images with them. “The processes are at a point where they are repeatable and consistent, so you could potentially create a series of images that are coherent,” he tells us, explaining how it’s always been the next step that he finds the hardest. “That’s one thing I’ve always struggled with, what to photograph, and why?”
GalleryBrendan shot by Luke & Nik
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The Caravan Camera
Whether Brendan does manage to find an apt subject or not, the project still goes on regardless, because fundamentally it isn’t the point of what he does. “When you’re working in this way, like when you’re so focused or interested in the process, it’s easy to lose sight of what these images can mean when they come together,” he says. “But at the same time that’s what the photography world wants to see, and I’m conscious of not just working like that.”
The subject matter of his images is secondary to the fact that images are created in the first place. “You see the image and that’s like the crescendo,” he says, talking about how the process is the most enjoyable and important part for him. It’s ultimately why it isn’t important whether the photograph is of a Manhattan skyline or of suburban Devon, because it is just as much about making a camera and creating an image as it is about what it shows.
Not just resting on his laurels, it will come as no surprise to you that Brendan’s head is full of ideas for other projects to embark on. “I’m looking into creating colour images with a reversal process,” he says. “Believe it or not, I’ve found somewhere in America that creates 50-inch wide rolls of colour paper!”
As for the cameras, there are of course some wonderfully silly ideas in the pipeline too: “There are certain spaces that I’d love to do. I’m currently working on a double-decker bus,” he says. “And because of all the challenges, I’d definitely love to do something in a boat!”
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In the studio with Brendan and Luke & Nik, documented by Jake Kenny
The photographs of Brendan are the result of a day of experimentation between him and photography duo Luke & Nik. Together, they used Brendan’s camera and developing techniques, collaborating to push these techniques even further.
Brendan shot by Luke & Nik
About the Author
Charlie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in December 2019. He has previously worked at Monocle 24, and The Times following an MA in International Journalism at City University. If you have any ideas for stories and work to be featured then get in touch.