This Book is a Camera : Interview with Kelli Anderson, The Paper Magician

Turning a simple thing as paper into a magical universe — this is what Kelli Anderson is doing in her daily life as a designer. One of her latest projects, This Book is a Camera, is a beautifully designed book that unexpectedly turns into a pinhole camera when opening it — or a pinhole camera turning into a book when closing it, your choice.

Featured as one of the most cleverly designed objects of 2015 by Wired, This Book is a Camera is a reminder that photography existed — back then — without all these fancy features and options on digital cameras, and without Instagram.

Kelli was nice enough to answer a few questions and share a dose of her contagious passion with us.

How did you come up with this idea of building a camera inside a book? Is the educational aspect of your work something important to you?

I get really excited about things that do a lot with little. Because of that, I spend — what is probably — way too much of my life staring at pieces of paper, daydreaming about what they could do. Building a paper camera became a mission because I knew from art school that all you need to make a camera is a lightproof space with the correct sized hole in it (the film really does the rest). So it seemed possible. In photo 101, we built cameras from Quaker Oatmeal containers. At the time, it seemed like pure magic that we actually ended-up with photos!

But using a camera-made-from-trash only tells you about part of photography’s magic. Understanding why light does-what-it-does and how a camera’s shape exploits light’s tendencies is really an interesting — and natural — next step. So, I thought it would be really cool if I could make a single object capable of simultaneously explaining and actively demonstrating how light works. A book is a perfect format for this type of presentation because it has this power to simultaneously demonstrate and explain.

Is paper your first love as a designer?

What I like about paper is that it is so lo-fi, but so capable! With the camera, it’s like we have all forgotten that a photo is essentially just an imprint of light — because our phones and digital cameras conceal this fact. Sophisticated technology makes us more powerful, but it also keeps us in the dark — it is less clear how our things work. By stripping-down functional contraptions to just paper, it is easier to observe what is really happening. In this way, paper can highlight the magic of the physical world because there is — literally — nothing else there besides the interplay between the two.

Did you have to overcome obstacles before turning this book into reality?

Yeah, definitely. Making these kinds of projects can be incredibly frustrating! 99.9% of the project is about things not-working. And then one day it f-i-n-a-l-l-y works.

With this book, I found the trickiest part to be finding a shape for the camera that was both light-proof and collapsible — those two things are normally mutually exclusive. Light truly wants to leak in everywhere. So I often felt like I was battling “the physical world” itself. The design I netted-out on is the same shape as many early view cameras — like the type Daguerre used at the dawn of photography. It is essentially just a bellow, like an accordion, that keeps extraneous list from sneaking in.

We heard that the MoMA wanted to add your book into their collection. How do you feel about that?

Yeah! Actually, MoMA is taking over the production of the book in the future, so it can reach a larger audience. As a modern art nerd, I am beyond delighted about this.

Credits: ohang

Paper, pinhole camera.. None of this looks very modern, would you say that your work is going back to the roots?

It is, but the apparent nostalgia is for a good cause: modern people still want to understand how their world works. I would even argue that: as technology progresses, it will naturally come out of its little compartmentalized boxes on our phones and laptops and mesh more with the world around us. Tech processes are increasingly going to have to collaborate with how-the-world-already works. The physical world is a structure that isn’t going away any time soon. That’s why this old, mechanical stuff is still relevant I think.

Credits: Kelli Anderson with This Book is a Camera

Now let’s talk to you as a photographer. How is your connection to analogue photography?

Although I didn’t major in photography, much of my life at school was spent in the darkroom — as was my life right after school. I worked for five years digitizing hundred-year-old photographs at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Early in the museum’s history, they sponsored expeditions that sought to explore every corner of the earth. They have the first glass plate negative photographs of the South pole, some of the only remaining images of native tribes of the South Pacific, and pictures of Charles Darwin on his deathbed. I sat there and scanned/retouched all day–and helped the library develop systems for preserving these images for all time.

Credits: Kelli Anderson with This Book is a Camera

What are you working on right now, do you have other books in mind?

I’m finishing up a large, mass-market pop-up book of functional contraptions to be released in November. I’m working with a big publishing house and the process has been tricky. (In fact, an early version of the camera was one of the prototypes I made way back in 2014.)

This new big book, This Book is a Planetarium (which indeed contains a miniature paper dome, perforated with constellations and other interactive contraptions) contains six different pop-up gadgets. It gets into other aspects of how light works, but also sound, time, gravity. It’s going to be pretty cool! We just need to work out a few last problems with the manufacturer.

I really want to make This Book is a Record Player happen this year. I made a paper record player wedding invitation for some dear friends a few years ago and it was really really fun. I’m prototyping the book version now, but am struggling to make the record turn smoothly (for non-jerky sound playback). If any of your readers have ideas, I’m all ears!

Check out the kind of pictures you can take with this incredible tool here, and for the most curious of you, discover more amazing work from Kelli Anderson right here. You can now buy the surprising This Book is a Camera on the Lomo shop!

Originally published at