Sunday, May 4, 2014

Poetics of Light: Contemporary Pinhole Photography

This exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum was quite a surprise.  I had always thought of pinhole photography as extremely primitive with rather boring photos as a result.  Well, I was right as far as the technique being primitive in that instead of a glass lens one is shooting with no lens, usually a light-tight box with only one pin hole in front letting in light to a negative or paper film on the back wall.  The photographer has far less control than using a lens where aperture and focus can be set in conjunction with each other.  There is, of course, no such thing as a light meter so exposure but it is the photographer’s best guess considering how large a pinhole that person has been made.

 I never did pin hole photography myself but just before I left on a teen tour across the country my parents gave me my first 35mm camera, a Retina IIIC which had a light meter built in.  We were in Calgary, Canada for the Stampede (rodeo and fair) and there was a fantastic fireworks display.  Naturally it was dark out and I had never taken a time exposure before.  I knew I was using a slow film so I just opened the aperture as far as it would go and held the lens open for a guestimated amount of time.  The resulting slides were superb.  It was total beginners luck and I never tried it again.  That is pretty much what the pinhole photographer is dealing with.

Pinhole photography is, in my opinion, the purview of the hobbyist and the results are hard to anticipate. In the exhibition, however, I saw some very sophisticated images both in black and white and in color. 

The exhibition was assembled from the collection of over 6,000 pinhole photographs and 60 cameras donated to the New Mexico History Museum Photo Archives by Nancy Spencer and Eric Renner in 2012. Much of it has been digitized and can be found at In 1987 the couple started a magazine devoted to pinhole photography that came out three times a year. From their home in the tiny southern New Mexico town of San Lorenzo, a designated ghost town, they appealed to pinhole photographers saying that if they were sent images they would publish them. Over the years, more that 600 photographers from 36 countries responded. There were 30 photographers in the audience for Spencer and Renner’s presentation at the exhibition opening and 10 of them were from outside the United States.

I am sure that being away from it all allowed Spencer and Renner to focus on their passion or should we call it, obsession.  They are also pinhole photographers in their own right and taken some wonderful images. According to the collectors it was a pinhole photograph by Renner, titled “Grandmother Becomes the Moon”, that brought them together. When Spencer saw the image she felt compelled to get in touch with Renner and so the relationship began.

One of the subjects that photo curators are intensely interested in these days is Vernacular Photography, these are usually images by unknown or amateur photographers who are taking pictures of every day life. Much of pinhole photography could fit into this category.   Even though a vernacular photograph might be successful, it is usually the known photographer that has a consistency of quality in the work. Take for example an image in the show by Laura Gilpin, “Ghost Rock, Garden of the Gods, Colorado”: it happens to be a pinhole photograph but it stands out from all the rest. It is not the one in the show but rather a platinum print done 2 years earlier in 1917.   Even though a vernacular photograph might stand out it is usually the known photographer that has a consistency of quality in their work.

Still the show included interesting interpretations of well-known subjects.   An extremely popular subject for photographers in these parts is the Church at Rancho de Taos.  A classic image was created by the famous photographer of the American West, Ansel Adams. One of the reasons it is such a challenge for photographers is that it is made up of so many different softened geometric shapes.  Here the pinhole photographer, Bill Wittliff, in 2000, came up with something, different an abstract Cubist-like image.

One haunting print is called “The Hand of Fate” by Martha Casanave.  Renner and Spencer explained that in order to create a ghost-like image in a photograph the character of the ghost has to stand in the photographic frame for half the exposure time.

This example caused Renner to remark that a hundred things can go right taking pinhole photographs, but if one thing goes wrong the image is not what was hoped for.

The exhibit opening coincided with Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, a global event in which pinhole aficionados post their of-the-moment images to a website, thus celebrating in a high-tech way their mastery of low-tech photography. (For more info on the event, log onto 
There seem to be almost as many people who enjoy making pinhole cameras as there are people to use them and the exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum celebrates both.

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