IRVINE, Calif. – Walk into the massive air hangar and the first thing you notice is an oppressive darkness broken only by a tiny beam of light from a gumball-sized hole in the wall.
Then, slowly, an upside-down image emerges on the opposite wall that is startling in its clarity — a dilapidated air traffic control tower, an overgrown runway and palm trees clustered amid rolling hills.
Once home to roaring fighter jets, this decommissioned Marine Corps hangar is now the world's largest camera poised to take the world's largest picture.
If all goes well, within days the hangar-turned-camera will record a panoramic image of what's on the other side of the door using the centuries-old principle of "camera obscura."
An image of the former El Toro Marine Air Corps Station will appear upside down and flipped left-to-right on a sheath of light-sensitive fabric after being projected through the tiny hole in the hangar's metal door. The fabric is the length of one-third of a football field and about 3 stories tall.
The Guinness Book of World Records has created two new categories for the project — world's largest camera and world's largest photograph — and will certify the records once the photo is complete.
"This project is about being deep inside photography, in the sense that you can walk inside the camera. It's the origins of photography and we've been living in it for weeks at a time," said Doug McCulloh, a photographer for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
On Wednesday, the six photographers with the nonprofit Legacy Project were to begin testing their massive camera and hope to have a photograph completed within two weeks.
The ambitious project is the latest by photographers who want to capture the Marine base before it's gone and document the transition of a nearly 5,000-acre chunk of land that's an important part of the region's history.
The base was decommissioned in 1999 after more than a half-century of use.
After a bitter fight over its future, the Miami-based Lennar Corp. bought the land and plans to break ground soon on a development that will include a 375-acre park, museum district, sport complex and thousands of suburban homes.
The Legacy Project has been documenting the transition since 2002 with more than 80,000 photographs. But last year, participants decided to make history, as well as record it.
"It was imperative that we do this now or never. I grew up watching these orange groves disappear and these planes take off, and now they're gone forever," said Jerry Burchfield, a photography professor and gallery director at Cypress College.
The photographers are using a nearly 33-by-111 foot piece of white fabric covered in 20 gallons of light-sensitive emulsion as the photographic "negative."
After exposing the fabric for up to 10 days, they will develop it in a huge tub made of pool siding, using 200 gallons of black-and-white developer solution and 600 gallons of fixer.
The photographers on Tuesday put their final touches on the camera, patching up places where sunlight leaked in between the rafters and testing the pinhole's upside-down projection on the huge fabric.
At one point, an airplane that droned by outside appeared as a tiny black fleck moving across the white fabric at knee height.
The photographers joke that they are also making the world's largest disposable camera. When they are done, the hangar will be torn down.
"The whole topography, this flat view across to the coastal hills, will be gone," said Burchfield. "The view will be gone, and the camera will be gone too."