The world’s largest pinhole photograph

At three stories high, eleven stories long, Guinness Records says the Great Picture is the largest photograph in the world.

Building 115 The hangerA team of six artists of the Legacy Project and an army of assistants and volunteers converted an abandoned F-18 jet fighter hanger at El Toro MCAS in Orange County, California into a gigantic pinhole camera, then hung a single, seamless piece of light sensitive muslin cloth from the ceiling of the hanger.

On July 8, 2006 the cloth was exposed to light streaming through a hole less than 1/4″ in diameter, and The Great Picture was made. One of the artists, Rob Johnson, describes the making of the camera, and the making of the photograph in this 23 minute movie.

On September 6, 2007 The Great Picture was publicly displayed for the first time before an awed crowd at the Pasadena College of Art and Design. It hung from the ceiling of the Wind Tunnel on the South Campus of the college, in a building much like the one in which the photograph was made.

The Legacy Project and the Great Picture

World War II brought with it explosive growth to thousands of military installations across the United States. Every branch of the American military needed bases for training and support, and not the least among them were the United States Marines.

El Toro MCAS

The smallest of the military services, and heir to the slogan, “Just a Few Good Men,” the Marines have always held proudly to their tradition of doing the best with whatever they had. That did not change after the U.S. Congress and the Secretary of Defense decided in the 1990’s to close hundreds of military installations because they had become outmoded, or were under utilized. El Toro MCAS in Irvine, California became a victim of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990. In 1993 El Toro MCAS was among those bases which would be closed and the property turned over to local governments for redevelopment and conversion to civilian use. The Marines made do with what they had, and moved to Miramar MCAS in San Diego, California. Then for many years the politicians argued.

Would El Toro be a new international airport, a business park or a giant housing tract among the increasingly crowded communities of Orange County, or would it have some broader use for the Southern California region?

Years of wrangling finally led to a decision to combine uses of the nearly 4700 acre base, allowing the creation of a large new residential community, but also creation of the Orange County Great Park. Years of decline and decay did nothing to improve the condition of the buildings at El Toro, but they did spark the imagination of Jerry Burchfield, a photography instructor at Cypress College in nearby Cypress, California.

Jerry decided that he would like to take his students to El Toro MCAS on a field trip to document the condition of the base. After months of negotiation Burchfield succeeded in gaining access for guided tours of the base for his students.

The Perimeter Project

The Perimeter Project followed. Teams of students and instructors fanned out along nearly 20 miles of fence lines to take photographs of the El Toro MCAS perimeter. The goal: to preserve a view of what the base looked like before redevelopment began. Then one of Jerry’s fellow instructors, Clayton Spada, returned from a summer in China where he had led students in the making of large scale pinhole photographs.

Clayton suggested to members of what had become the Legacy Project that they consider making a very large scale pinhole photograph using one of the abandoned buildings on El Toro as their pinhole camera. As Rob Johnson, yet another member of the Legacy Project explained, Clayton presented the idea at a monthly meeting, and the group, perhaps after a beer or two, decided, “Let’s go for it!”

The Great Picture

And so was born The Great Picture project. From 2004 to 2006 the group negotiated with local governments and with the U.S. Government for permission to use an abandoned F-18 fighter jet hanger as a gigantic pinhole camera to produce what would become, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the world’s largest photograph taken by the world’s largest camera.

On July 8, 2006, after months of light-tightening the hanger, Building 115, the Legacy Project took the plunge. They would have only one chance to do the job right, so they exposed test strips over the course of several days before deciding on an exposure time of 35 minutes through an aperture of 6 mm (approximately 1/4”) onto a single seamless piece of hand-coated light sensitive muslin.

Light Baffle Safelight controls

Their goal: record the landscape outside Building 115. This included a vast acreage of concrete tarmac, parking place for decades of Marine aircraft, as well as the Control Tower and Base Operations buildings far in the distance. Show the base as it was. they thought, and show the base they did.

Their final negative image was more than three stories high and eleven stories long. This translates to a photograph 107.5’ long by 37.5’ high. Big.

Inside the infernoTo see how it was done, and to hear it explained by Rob Johnson, one of the members of the Legacy Project, press here. . .. You’ll be fascinated by Rob’s 24 minute explanation of the history of the Legacy Project, and his explanation of the making of the world’s biggest photograph in the world’s biggest camera.

Building 115 The hangerThe Legacy Project is proud to present the first public showing of what they denominate as The Great Picture. The opening reception will be tonight, September 6, 2007 at the Art Center College of Design the Arts at 950 So. Raymond Avenue in Pasadena, California. The Great Picture will hang on public display until September 29, 2007.

If you have a reason or excuse to go to Pasadena to see it, don’t miss the chance of a lifetime to see this unique objet d’art in one of photography’s oldest alternative processes.

Beginners guide to pinholing
From pinhole to print – Inspiration, instructions and insights in less than an hour
by Gary Fabbri, Malin Fabbri and Peter Wiklund
The quick and easy way to learn how to build a pinhole camera!
From pinhole to print will guide you from drilling your first pinhole to printing your first pinhole photograph. It is an easy to read, step-by-step guide to making a pinhole camera and creating images.
Strongly recommended for beginners


  1. allyssa
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Permalink


  2. T Allen
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Articles keep referring to the hanger as an “F-18 jet hanger.” It is my understanding the hanger (Hanger No. 2) was a derigible hanger at the El Toro LTA (Lighter-Than-Air) base, part of the Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin. I don’t recall jets ever landing at facilities on this west side of the 5 Freeway.

11 Trackbacks

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