Pinhole photos date back to the genesis of photography, but artist Pierre-Olivier Boulant is re-imagining them as digital media. Working with custom, hand-built control hardware and software patched in the free visual development environment Pure Data (Pd), he composes live performances from the photos, working with musicians to create a live soundscape. A chemical engineer by training, he left the field to focus on his love of sound and photography. What began with photographs on an overhead projector (the classic tool of the pre-computer live visualist) has become a project with software and webcam, but still built around the quality of the photography.

I asked Pierre-Olivier to share some of the details of his work, as well as the experience of starting out with Pd as a kind of multimedia canvas for this sort of production. I’ve included his comments un-edited, because, well, this is the character of a lot of the conversations I have and I think it’s all quite useful to read.

This is my first project with Pure Data, and I’m still learning. I’ve never been to keen on making electro-acoustic music myself, but this is the extension of some performances I did with large format slide film on overhead projectors.

If you can read French have a look at the end of this file:

With the help of Pure Data, the possibilities have expanded and the quality of the picture has really improved. I can use lots of different pictures of all sizes. All pictures are pinhole in this project.
I’ve been asked to use it to project regular pictures by some other people and it works pretty well too. But I think abstract pictures are much better suited for this system.

Further development will focus on integrating a touch-sensitive control in the red backlit table so I can have less midi or manage some sound too. And I also need to think about making a lighter version. The current system is too big to take on an airplane.

I have a stock of pinhole pictures, except in certain situations where I have a set of pictures given to me — for example, [I've been given] pictures taken from the archives of a former mining site nearby. These pictures can either be mixed with four others, or flashed with a [Korg] nanoPAD [MIDI controller]. The velocity controls the duration of the decay: the harder I hit, the longer the picture stays on. And for some special ultrawide format strips, I can scroll sideways.

There are several layers of rendering, so I can decide what is on top of what.

And then I have a webcam, with the possibility of sampling twice 5 or 6 seconds and looping each fragment, with variable speed, and in and out points. I can even override the loop with direct control of the frames to be shown.

All the development was done in Pure Data and [visual environment] GEM.

The full hardware rig, complete with Korg and Behringer controllers, top; custom-created Pd software and GUI, bottom. Photos (CC-BY-SA) Pierre-Olivier Boulant.

Pierre-Olivier also speaks about this particular performance piece.

Michel Doneda, the soprano sax player for whom I’ve worked quite a few times as a sound engineer, asked me to get something ready to play with him and Guillaume Blaise, former member of the Percussion de Strasbourg, using my pinhole pictures. I had already tried working directly with the slides (medium and large format) on an overhead projector. I had a problem with the enlargement of the pictures and the relative sizes, not to mention the very low definition of the optics on such projectors. Besides, the slides were getting treated badly. So I went for a digital setup, but with some manual aspect to keep it open to a lot of concrete input.

In this trio, we work as improvisers. We have our different instruments, each with a vocabulary. I have probably the most to discover on mine, since it’s still very new to me. We each have a sort of impulse at the beginning of each session. But what the others play will interact with each one’s intention. Maybe not on a short term action-reaction mode, but on a longer timeframe.

With Michel and Guillaume, we hardly ever have pre-set directions before we start. We do talk after each session about what we thought about what has just been performed, but not much beforehand.
Each session is different. We can each choose to take very different paths depending on a lot of things. Sometimes I don’t show any pictures but draw to the music under the camera. I can decide not to show pictures before the music has started, or the opposite and take the lead in a way and start with a picture before the first sound. And what I hear will give me ideas, sometimes even-though I am very aware of what both musicians play, I can decide not to give it any effect on what I do. And the same is true for either musicians in the way we interact with each other.

In the next couple of weeks, I will add the possibility to play sound field recordings and pick up the sound of the objects I play with under the camera. The looping of pictures leaves me a little time to do this.

I also quite like his thinking about projection; rather than thinking of projection as you would a cinema, it’s kept at the scale of the human players and instruments – as if it’s another instrument.

Another aspect of the visual setup is not to project on a screen that people will gaze at, like a cinema screen. In that case, it seems the music comes from the screen and we lose the presence of the performers and even of the actual instruments. So I need to keep the dimensions of the screen at a more or less human size, it might be 4m wide at most. We feel it is important for the audience to see us playing our instruments and neither the music nor the visuals should prevail in the spectators’ perception. We with to keep all this as a whole, with three performers and three “instruments” in the sense of a musical instrument.

Le Pixophone from Pierre-Olivier Boulant on Vimeo.

Le Pixophone from Pierre-Olivier Boulant on Vimeo.

Also, I have to say, I absolutely love the work Pierre-Olivier is doing with photographic media, as in this set of Solargraphs from his Flickr account:

And here are some of his pinhole photos, shot using a converted disposable camera:

More on the project, with documentation and links to the blog, in French:

  • pob

    Some extra info at the request of Peter:

    The light table, the new model, version 2, has an array of red LEDs controlled by an Arduino in PWM. Also connected to the Arduino I have a couple of very basic resistive touch pads. I was planning on buttons and all sorts of lights, but not yet. I haven't gotten around to putting a IR camera in the table with some IR LEDs, maybe for the next version! :)

    Before I used a power saving light bulb with a red filter or some red LED bulb (not powerful enough).

    Over the table I have an enlarger which was given to me. I use it for projecting light from above as a small window in the middle. And the webcam is mounted on the enlarger so I can raise or lower the camera.

    Then I have a NanoPad, a BCR2000 and an FBV express II (MIDI over USB foot-controller). I wanted to have a foldable system instead of the coffee table like structure I used before. So I went for drum stools and removed the seat, kept the junction between the upright tube and the seat to screw on the different things. I drilled into the bottom of the BCR, there's plenty of room in there so I didn't need any support as I do for the computer. And I recently built a table I use to lay stuff that serves as Photograms on the light table. I have some metal chains, pieces of frosted glass, X-ray shots and I plan on collecting more material for this purpose.

    I am rebuilding the GUI in GEM on a tablet PC so I can have more desktop real-estate. The standard Tcl/Tk interface in Puredata is not really meant to move and I have too much for one screen. I could juggle between windows, but I figured I would give it a try with GEM. I can customise the interface elements too. All this because at the end of the month I am to give a live performance with sound and I need more room for the audio side of the interface.

    About pinhole photography…

    There are loads of resources on the web about pinhole. A lot of people have given pinhole a try in this digital age. Pinhole is a bit like open-source or DIY photography. Anything, or almost, can be turned into a pinhole camera or a camera obscura, the ones you can actually get into to see the inverted image projected in front of the pinhole. All you need to do is make that container light tight and punch a tiny hole in it. You probably can't imagine all that has been tried! :) The oatmeal, beer, coffee or tea tins, 35mm film containers are the most frequent. Some people build them out of wood. There are plastic kits available. you can print your pictures onto paper, you will get a paper negative, or you can use film black and white, colour negative or slide film. I use mostly slide film. Some more intriguing camera use red pepper, buttons, ones mouth or fist, air plane warehouses, vans or caravans, hotel rooms… I'm pretty sure anything you'd care to name must have been tried! :)

    There are plenty of groups of pinholers on Flickr.

    You can check out this forum too :

    Each year there is the Worldwide pinhole day. And everyone is invited to post a picture taken on this day on this website : And as you can see Pinhole is really international!

    Some very specific things with pinhole is the tiny aperture (F-stop goes into the hundreds easily) which gives an almost infinite depth of field a soft focus and extended exposures. You can also try different shapes to project onto to warp the picture inside the camera. You can have several pinholes and blend different views…

    One thing that's really been growing is Solargraphy. This is non-time-lapse extreme exposure. All it takes is a pinhole camera, a piece of black and white paper and either a camera (digital or not) or a scanner. You leave out the camera with the pinhole open for several weeks or even better months. The photosensitive paper will turn first yellowish and then different shades of pastels just from the effect of light. You can develop the paper in regular chemistry or it will turn all black from such an over exposure. The fixer is slightly bleaching, on a regularly developed picture this is not really noticeable, but here it would make most of the picture disappear except the sun tracks. So all you can do is rephotograph this faint picture. The scanner will mark the paper too, so you want to work real fast. you then work on it in your favourite digital image manipulation software and "voilà"!

    You can check out the website of one of the inventor Diego Lopez-Calvin from Spain :
    Or this worldwide project where you can ask for a camera, set it up near by where you live and once it's exposed send it back to Finland where Tarja will process it.

    Please feel free to ask any question.

    Oh! And before I forget you can put a lens cap with a pinhole on a digital SLR, but you'll get milky picture because of the interaction of the micro lenses of the sensor and the pinhole unless you can get your hands on a high end medium format digital back, but as far as I have tried this it doesn't compare to twisting a piece of film in a weird shaped tin-can!

    Oh! (again) Some mad people have shot (short) movies with pinhole! I told you anything is possible!

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