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Pinhole photography: The new obsession


You’re late. I’m already there. Actually, my latest obsession started with a good friend of mine, a painter in German of some repute. I’ve known him for 25 years and love his style.

(See Martin Streit’s Web site. His work I refer to is under the links “bilder” and “fotos”; under “infos” is a four-minute video about Martin and a 50 meter camera obscura he built at an old rocket experiment station-turned artist colony. It’s in German, but it’s beautiful. Plus, you get to see my pal.)

As a writer, academic historian, and union ironworker (you figure that out, you’re a genius), I’ve found that to sink into a piece of writing, like a scholarly article or a longer creative work, I need a lot of time. Fifteen minutes here or an hour isn’t enough to develop the concentration I need for that kind of work. On the other hand, I have a heavy amount of Catholic guilt about wasting time in front of the tube. The answer was making pictures. But the problem I have always had was being able to produce focused pictures due to my eyesight, which borders on awful.

So, I decided that I’d make pictures in ways that didn’t matter how blind I was. Camera obscura turned out to be easy, fun, and made beautiful pictures with just a few minutes of effort after I built the camera. Of course, I got the idea from Martin, who had started working in camera obscura because of the pictures similarities to his painting. The idea, you know, is to produce an image on a translucent screen, and then to take a picture of the screen.

That lead then to the pinhole, as you need one on the portable or hand-held camera obscura. I made a couple of pinholes for the body caps for my Pentax K1000 and Praktica MTL (which I lovingly call my communist camera, as it was made in the old East Germany). I did just as I read. But the picks were really awful. So, I made several of different sizes and compared them by looking through the viewfinders at a compact fluorescent until I found the one that produced the most in-focus image in the viewfinder. Now I have to figure out exposures. It turns out that I have been underestimating the amount of light that actually comes through that little hole, and, with only a few exceptions, most of what I have done on film so far has been overexposed. The sunny-day shots turn out just fine because the exposure times are so short. But when the light is off, say like in late evening or at night, it’s far more difficult for me to know, so far, how long to expose the film.

I can make all the pinholes I want, now that I understand how to do it. But I want to use some refined ones for some of the projects I have ahead of me. With the SLRs and a new box I’m making myself (the print will be 7 x 9, although I’d like to work up to larger formats), I want to shoot right to B/W paper to make paper negatives—tiny ones in the SLRs and 4 x 5s and the bigger ones. These, then, I want to scan, reverse, and manipulate to prepare the images for a high-res art printer. This kind of printer, like the one at the college where I teach, puts ink to linen and cotton paper in ways that give finished prints qualities similar to litho prints. The important point here is that I should have some pretty precise pinholes because of the length of the exposures needed to shoot paper, and the kind of focus I’d like to have.

I absolutely love similar prints I’ve seen. It’s photography, that’s sure. But it’s so different with fiber. There’s a depth in the print that comes from the absorption of the inks into the paper—just like in printmaking, particularly litho prints on heavy paper.

In the end, I’m captivated with light, possibly because my sight has been bad my whole life—not blindness, mind you, but nearsightedness and astigmatism. Making decent photos with my eye alone is difficult. At the same time, I have an innate sense of composition that only gets better with my own painting and picture taking. What better kinds of light manipulation but one that demand composition, sensitivity to complexities of shade and contrast, and still don’t demand that I focus anything myself?

By the way, I bought a 41” x 100’ roll of B/W paper and processing chemicals to do this. I figure that’s enough paper to practice, experiment, and have an activity that will keep my attention and that of my son. It’s certainly enough paper and chemicals to prove to myself that I do or don’t want to continue. I picked up a Brownie Jr., a really old Kodak Box (1916), and a Kodak Tourist III—folding 4 x 5 with bellows. Each of them have shutters that will allow me to make long exposures. For an afternoon with my son, whose an 8-year-old nerdboy, I can cut the paper under red light load the cameras, and load pics and develop the negatives within just four or five hours—and this includes the time for Nick and I to find good shots.

Now, on to my book, Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains: Thanks for taking a look at the Web site. The book, I understand, is a good one. It’s had many fine reviews, two middling ones, and only one negative. Everyone gets all excited about me taking the trip and writing a book, but I try to tell people that we all have stories, human stories, to tell. I’m just obsessed with being a writer enough to put it to paper. Seldom Seen is the first of two books. Seldom Seen is about the waling trip from Kansas City to Helena. The second, which I’m giving to the University of Nebraska Press in May, is about taking a canoe back to Kansas City on the Missouri River.

So I would love to hear more of your travel. I love travel. My own and that of others.

I’m fading here and have to sign off. I will do the paypal thing in the morning. I’m sure we will have plenty of journeys, in space and light, to talk about in the future.


P.S. If you get a book, you have here a standing offer to get it immediately devalued by me writing in it! Besides that, I think you will like it. If not, you can always tell me.

I have posted my first forays into camera obscura here:

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