DIY Camera: Adam Magyar’s Slit-Scan Camera

February 10, 2012

By Conor Risch

© Adam Magyar

The slit-scan camera Adam Magyar built for his "Urban Flow" series. To see images taken with this camera and from his "Stainless" series, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Crafting a unique image can require a photographer to think beyond the mass-produced tools of the photographic industry. In our DIY Issue we interviewed three photographers who built their own cameras in order to achieve the photographs they envisioned.  

The black-and-white images in Adam Magyar’s “Urban Flow” series stretch across time. Made using a slit-scan camera he built from scanner parts and a medium-format lens, the images are unique street scenes made in places like Tokyo, New York City and London during intervals from less than one minute to several minutes long.

“I’ve always been intrigued by transiency, our temporary existence, the drama of coming in and out of the world as we know it,” he says.

Magyar began as a documentary photographer who would make photographs on film, and process and print them in a darkroom. After several years he realized he couldn’t convey what he wanted to through traditional photography.

He began working more conceptually, and the concepts he devised have required that he construct cameras and even write computer programs that allow him to create the images he wants. “The camera can be analogue or digital, yet it’s no more than a device,” he says. “If you find your concept requires a different technology, that’s what you need to use. And if the technology requires some adjustments, you make those adjustments.”

For “Urban Flow,” Magyar built a digital slit-scan camera that generated thousands of one-pixel-width captures per second, all of which formed a final image covering a given interval. Magyar wrote a program that would operate the scanner “with a special user interface that was optimized for the project,” which allowed him to preview the compositions before he began to scan the scenes.

A lengthy exposure of a daytime street scene would generally yield a blur of activity set against a backdrop of stationary objects like buildings and streets. Magyar’s images invert that effect: the moving objects—people, vehicles—appear clearly while the stationary objects—buildings, streets—form a backdrop of different-shaded vertical lines.

“I wanted to depict people as being particles in a system all heading in the same direction,” Magyar explains. “In many of my ‘Urban Flow’ images people look like they are walking on a stage, heading towards the same destination … What happens between entering and exiting this flow? Can we leave any trace behind? Do we have a genuine choice what track we follow?”

These concepts—and others—also underpin his “Stainless” project, which depicts subway trains in Paris, Tokyo and New York City moving in and out of the stations. The train cars “could be considered society or our minds,” Magyar explains. “There are phases of our lives, people come to join us and decide to leave later and all we know about the world is what we see in this carriage … [It] protects us, helps us go from A to B, but it’s also a cage that would keep us from seeing the world as a whole.”

Magyar made “Stainless” using an industrial camera “normally used at assembly lines for mass production,” he says. The camera lens and sensor required additional equipment to record images, so Magyar had to build a portable setup that would allow him to stream the “huge quantity of data” the camera collected during capture. It wasn’t realistic to use a computer in the subway, so Magyar wrote an iPhone application that allowed him to control the camera system and data stream.

Following “a little police intervention” Magyar decided he needed to work without a tripod, but handholding the camera system resulted in wavy images, so he wrote a program that flattened the waves in post production.

Magyar equates the lengthy process of conceiving images and finding and building the right image-capture solution to “digging for gold. I know [the solution] has to be there hidden in the immense mines of the digital and mathematical world.”

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