Smithsonian Air & Space Museum to Exhibit 'The Great Picture'

'The Great Picture' was created by a group of photographic artists with strong ties to Cypress College
‘The Great Picture’ was created by a group of photographic artists with strong ties to Cypress College

On Saturday, the Smithsonian opens an exhibit of a Cypress College-inspired, Guinness Book of World Records recognized photograph.

The photograph, known as The Great Picture, was created at the former Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, by turning an abandoned hanger into the world’s largest pinhole camera.

“I am very happy and proud of the (exhibit) and need to share it with the Cypress College family since the original impetus for the project started here in our Photography Department,” said Rob Johnson, one of six artists who spearheaded the project. “As many of you might recall, this image was originally created by The Legacy Project, a group of six photographic artists, of which I and three others who taught here at CC (including Jerry Burchfield) were charter members.”

The Smithsonian’s description of the exhibit reads, in part:

Come and see what is possibly the largest pinhole photograph in the world, The Great Picture, on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center April 26 through November 2014. This exhibit features a unique camera obscura black-and-white, gelatin silver photograph that measures 31 feet high and 107 feet wide. It was created in 2006 by a group of six artists and depicts the abandoned Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Southern California.

Johnson, Clayton Spada, Mark Chamberlain, Jacques Garnier, Douglas McCulloh, and the late Mr. Burchfield are the co-creators of “The Great Picture” as part of the Legacy Project. All but Garnier have been on the faculty here at Cypress College. Garnier will present an artist’s discussion about the work on Saturday at the Smithsonian.

In the summer of 2006, the six well-known photographers and 400 volunteers first converted a hangar at El Toro into the largest pinhole camera ever created. The group hand-applied 80 liters of gelatin silver halide emulsion to a seamless canvas substrate — measuring 107 feet, 5 inches by 31 feet, 5 inches — custom-made in Germany. Development was done in a custom Olympic pool-sized developing tray using ten high-volume submersible pumps and 1,800 gallons of black and white chemistry.

A 35-minute exposure began at 11:30 a.m. on July 8, 2006 when a quarter-inch (6mm) pinhole was opened fifteen feet off the ground in the base’s Building #115 — a former F-18 fighter-plane hangar. The resulting 3,375-square-foot photograph shows the control tower, structures and runways at the heart of the closed 4,700-acre Marine base, as well as the surrounding foothills.

You can hear Johnson and Burchfield discuss the photograph in the October 23, 2006 edition of the Cypress College Podcast (beginning at the 3-minute, 40-second mark). In addition to technical and philosophical aspects of creating the photograph, the pair also describe the scene inside the world’s largest camera during that 35-minute picture-taking process.

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