My Camera and Me: Heather Oelklaus and her 1977 Chevy, Little Miss Sunshine

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Devoted to the art of pinhole photography, Oelklaus ruminates on her largest and most ambitious camera

Words by Heather Oelklaus, as told by Isaac Huxtable.

It all started on World Pinhole Photography Day. It’s the holiest of days, and takes place every year on the last Sunday of April. In 2011, I had a party to celebrate. Everyone made their own cameras out of boxes and exposed photo paper. I said that next year, I wanted to use a truck. I dreamed of  a camera which could take really big images, but wouldn’t be too heavy to carry on a photoshoot. I started to search Craigslist, eventually finding a big yellow 1977 Chevrolet. My favourite film is a discontinued Kodak E6, which came in this yellow box – the same shape and colour. I thought, well, this must be a sign.

I took the Chevy for a test drive, talked the price down, and took her home. I called her Little Miss Sunshine. We have a really good relationship. I feel like she’s a person – she definitely has a personality.

© Heather Oelkaus.

When people first see her, they might just see an old truck. I always say: “Well, why don’t you come inside and sit down?” They sit on the beanbag chairs, and I tell them to close their eyes, let their brain adjust to the unfamiliar surroundings. When they open them again, they see this upside down, backward world. To be able to give that feeling to people is what it’s all about. I love it. It’s otherworldly in there, like magic. If you are looking for what magic is, it’s inside a camera obscura truck. 

I started creating pinhole photography in 1992. It’s all very simple; with Little Miss Sunshine, there is a hole on the passenger side. You drive to the spot, get in the back, wait for your eyes to adjust, and set up the blackout curtain on the opposite wall. I frame up my image, make sure it fits within my 5’x10’ magnetic easel on the wall, put on my red headlamp, and pull the curtain back. Next I place 84 sheets of 8”x10” unexposed photo paper on the magnetic ease and make the exposure. The pinhole is so tiny it comes out to be an aperture of about f1497. On a bright, sunny day, it could be a 12-minute-long exposure. I sit in there, watching the world transfer itself onto the paper. The longer you stay, the more you see. You start seeing colours, and then you can see cars driving by, people walking. It’s a wonderful place.. Then, when the time is up, I shut my aperture and put all the exposed photo paper away, drive home, and process it in my darkroom.

“Little Miss Sunshine helps me face my fears. You learn a lot when you have to change the oil on your camera and fix it when it breaks down on the side of the road.”

© Heather Oelkaus.

Little Miss Sunshine helps me face my fears. You learn a lot when you have to change the oil on your camera and fix it when it breaks down on the side of the road. Being a woman out on the road and pulling into unfamiliar places to take a long exposure, you just don’t know what to expect. People are curious about Little Miss Sunshine and ask all kinds of questions. It is surprising how many people have never experienced what it is like inside a camera obscura, Little Miss Sunshine helps me get out of my comfort zone by allowing the unexpected to change into wonderful memories with people and places she has taken me. 

The relationship between time, light, and life is what I love. It’s squeezing life through that tiny hole. That’s why I named my latest series Taking Time, because I feel like I’m recording the time I’m taking, as well as taking the time to sit and look.  Little Miss Sunshine has definitely taught me patience.

Looking forward, I want to interact with the projected image more. The last shot I did, I took it to a Covid-19 testing site parking lot. When I was taking the picture, I stood halfway between the aperture and the film, interacting as a shadowy figure.  

I’ve been photographing for 35 years now, and it takes a lot to surprise me. I pretty much know what everything is going to look like before I click the shutter. But Little Miss Sunshine always surprises me. The detail is so sharp and beautiful, she picks up on things I never notice at first glance. Like I said, she’s magical.

© Heather Oelkaus.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.