Back in 1996, photographer and artist Marja Pirila was making a lot of environmental portraits. “Environmental” is photography-speak for images of people where the space around them provides context to who they are. But something was about to revolutionize the way Pirila made her portraits.
She encountered the work of Abelardo Morell in Aperture magazine. Morell is a large format film photographer who is known for his camera obscura photographs. But Pirila also saw new opportunities for working with the camera obscura process—which traditionally involves using black curtains over windows, and using a small hole to let light, and a upside-down projection of the outside world, shine in.
After much fidgeting and testing, Pirila discovered she could use a lens to create a brighter image that could be captured with a shorter exposure. This novel concept brought the exposure time down from hours to minutes—meaning she could now place people in the camera obscura scene, since they wouldn’t have to sit still for extended periods of time. Pirila also decided to photograph with color film—whereas Morell was working mainly in black and white.
“After I realized the possibilities of camera obscura, I felt that I had finally found the method that I had been looking for—one through which I could make images that show how I experience a person and their space,” Pirila says. This interesting juxtaposition inspired the project’s name, “Interior/Exterior.”
In her work, Pirila chooses her portrait subjects before considering their spaces. She says she “just accepts his/her environment as it is.” It’s a collaborative process, partially because the subject experiences the outside world projected on their walls and ceilings for the very first time during the portrait session.
“The simplicity and the magical nature of it fascinates people and they are very excited to see this phenomena in their own room,” she says. “Especially on bright days—when the phenomena is seen very clearly and the colors are bright—it surprises everyone. It even surprises me, and I’ve done hundreds of camera obscuras in diﬀerent kinds of rooms and places. I am always as excited as a six-year-old when I see how the light carries into the darkness of the room and brings the image alive with all the tiny details of the outside scenery.”
Working with children she says is “challenging but also very inspiring. Usually they immediately recognize and like the camera obscura’s playful and magic atmosphere.” After Pirila is able to calm the child down, they get to work making the image.
Pirila says the process continues to inspire her: “The transformation of an everyday room into a camera obscura ‘dark room’ conjures up the core and magic of photography again and again. It never ceases to fascinate me. I also love that I can combine an invention that is thousands of years old with the newest photography technology.”
And, from Pirila’s perspective, our personalities often meld with our environment. She says, “The landscape seen from our window is not only outside, but also within us.”
View more of Marja Pirila’s work on her website.