In a recent blog post about Fotonow we mentioned that they had been inspired by a Caravan Camera Obscura created by Derek Swindley. We asked for more information and happily his daughter Lesley Swindley has got in touch and agreed to write a short article about her father and his projects:
Derek Swindley was born in 1928 in Wolverhampton where he lived until he and his wife settled in Cornwall in 1959. Derek left school at fourteen to work as an apprentice electrician. He had a reputation from his teens for making and repairing mechanical objects. In the 1950s when his cousin Evelyn wanted a washing machine, which was a luxury item at that time, he built her one from a discarded hospital soiled-dressings container. He had numerous interests including stereo photography, astronomy and camera obscuras.
In 1984 Derek acquired a caravan and, in his back garden, converted it into a mobile camera obscura which he called ‘The Mobile Observatory’. The image was projected onto a 36 inch diameter screen in the blacked out caravan giving viewers an excellent image of the area outside the caravan. Derek took The Mobile Observatory to shows and rallies around Cornwall in 1984 and 1985, including ‘A Victorian Weekend’ staged in The Port Elliot Estate, St Germans in August 1984.
The Mobile Observatory was very well received, however it proved tricky to tow around Cornish roads and Derek was soon working on a more portable camera obscura. In 1985 he built a camera obscura in a tent; this could be transported by car and set up in about an hour. Derek took it local exhibitions where viewers were always very impressed at being able to see what was happening at the other end of the exhibition hall.
Derek’s Mobile Observatory was thought to be the only portable camera obscura in Britain when it was built in 1984. News of Derek’s camera obscura spread quickly amongst camera obscura enthusiasts; in 1985 the John Hammond (author of The Camera Obscura, A Chronicle, 1981) contacted Derek for a photograph to use in a talk to the Royal Photographical Society. Derek visited many camera obscuras and museums where the staff were always delighted to see photographs and learn more about his mobile version. A note from the Edinburgh Outlook Tower & Camera Obscura, following a visit by Derek, remarked on the ingenuity of his Mobile Observatory and also remarked that some visitors said they had seen a camera obscura before at a garden festival which they thought must have been Derek’s.
Derek was very proud of his camera obscura and keen to share his knowledge to help others to build their own. He provided support, inspiration and donated lenses for at least two significant mobile camera obscura projects; in 2003/4 the Bedford Creative Arts Cameravan – ‘Window on the World’ (which later became the Focal Point Gallery Cameravan), and more recently Fotonow’s Camper Obscura. Sadly Derek died in May 2012 however it is pleasing for his family to see that his imaginative engagement with building and demonstrating mobile camera obscuras continues through current projects.