Heather Oelklaus keeps a yellow box truck parked outside her Colorado Springs home, a “big, yellow monstrosity” she calls “Little Miss Sunshine.” It also happens to be a pinhole camera.
She had been looking for a truck like this for a while. Just as Kodak stopped making one of her favorite kinds of film she was looking on “Craigslist and there ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was — like a big box of film.” The photographic artist took the truck’s likeness to a box of Kodak film as an omen and she bought the 1977 Chevy and transformed it into a camera.
The truck is not alone. Not by a long shot.
The print workshop supervisor at Colorado College has turned a bellhop cart, a movie film reel canister, a teapot and a lunchbox among others into playful, simple, no lens cameras.
The inside of “Little Miss Sunshine” is lined with blackout fabric. Through a tiny hole on one side of the truck, light shines through, projecting an alternate and inverted view of the world onto 84 sheets of 8 x 10 photo paper adhered to a wall with minute magnets.
“I kind of love the world upside down,” Oelklaus said of the projected image. “I love seeing it differently. I love thinking about the world differently.”
Her pinhole camera obsession really solidified with something called Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, an annual event held on the last Sunday in April.
“In a time when [film] photography is being deleted, in my view, and replaced by digital image making, it was a way to feel a sense of community around the world,” Oelklaus said.
In 2005, one of the first years she participated, Oelklaus used an empty soda can as her camera body. The sun had already set, so she got the idea to use the light inside of her refrigerator. Holding the door open just enough to keep the light on, she stuck the soda can toward the back of the fridge and left it there for about seven minutes. The curvature of the can created a slightly distorted view of the contents of her refrigerator.
From there, Oelklaus went bigger.
Years later, she worked with her students at Colorado College to make pinhole cameras out of trash cans. Some friends and students poked fun at the size of these cameras. Her retort was to tell everyone she was “gonna get a truck and make a pinhole camera.” Again, everyone laughed, but for Oelklaus, it made perfect sense.
“Since I’m photographing real life, whatever that is, I want it to be close to life size.”
Oelklaus got into photography in high school after her art teacher asked her if she wanted to learn darkroom photography. She found it addictive and soon asked her father to help her build a darkroom at home. Thirty years on, she still loves the process.
“Every place I’ve ever lived after that had a darkroom in it,” Oelklaus said. “I set that up before I set up a kitchen, or a bedroom, or anything when I moved in.”
Oelklaus has stayed hooked on pinhole photography, in particular, because, after all this time, it still surprises her. She’s never sure how the image will turn out.
“Art forms that do that for me is what I’m chasing after.”
Sometimes she’ll buy a pinhole camera, but she much prefers to make her own because the object inspires what she photographs. Such as the selfies she took with an iPhone box camera or a doll house camera she recently created and will use to photograph her neighborhood.
Her basement has shelves of objects waiting to become pinhole cameras. A recipe card box, old pots and tins, and jewelry boxes each wait patiently for their photographic transformation. She sourced many of these items at antique stores.
If the big old truck wasn’t enough proof, know that Oelklaus is confident that she “can make pretty much anything into a camera.”