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: