LoupeHoles and Other Musings on Pinhole Photography

My first encounter with pinhole photography was  in 1986 when late one night, my husband and I punched a hole in the brick wall of the landing outside my studio door to see if we could put a window there overlooking the vacant lot. The next morning when I went upstairs to go into the studio, the vacant lot outside flooded onto the wall opposite the hole.  It was a camera obscura!  The image was projected by that crude hole and it was elegant and dreamlike.  Still, I did not think to use the pinhole camera in my own work or make an actual camera  until about 5 years later when I got a 4 x 5 pinhole camera design from my friend, Craig Barber, (www.craigbarber.com) a pioneer in pinhole photography.    I was teaching  photography in a community college, looking for ways to engage students and pinhole photography seemed a  perfect fit:   it was inexpensive, students could build their own cameras from scrap board and it taught them an enormous amount about exposure.  I tried out Craig’s design and shot some dixie cups sitting on a potter’s wheel.  I fell in love.  The students loved it too and about a year later, I was trying to figure out a way to capture what I saw under the 8x loupe that I wore around my neck in the darkroom.  I was entranced by the way everything, not just negatives and contact sheets, looked under the loupe.  How to get up close and capture that beautiful glowing light that made any old detritus look good?  I actually had a dream one night that I could do this with a pinhole camera.  I got up in the morning, duct-taped a loupe to a pinhole camera and took a photograph of a butter knife on a napkin leftover from dinner the night before.  You can see the loupe itself in the image, the camera was too wide-angle, but I knew I was onto something I wanted pursue.

For the next several years, I photographed many things under the loupe that I attached to a Leonardo 4 x 5 pinhole camera.  I shot these images on ISO 400 film, mostly guessing the exposures, developing the negatives in my dusty basement darkroom.  I enlarged them to 16 x 20 prints, as large as I could go before the soft focus fell apart.  The series which I titled LoupeHoles, (you can view some of these images under the portfolio section)  consisted  of all kinds of subjects that could fit under the loupe but gradually I started to concentrate on dead things, old dusty cast-offs, things that nobody else paid attention to.  Thinking back, these images were a part of my pyschology of the time:  dark, somewhat morose, isolated images that were really reflections of my own personal nightmares and fears.  But the prints were beautiful, big and gutsy,  toned in blue and gold and selenium.  For many years, I sent them out to various calls for work, showed them to dealers and curators and was always rejected.  The work remained unseen until Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer from the Pinhole Resource (www.pinholeresource.com) offered to publish some of the images in the Pinhole Journal (Volume 20, #2) and include The Point of A Pencil in their book, Pinhole Photography: Rediscovering a Historic Technique,  (third edition).  Then Eric and Nancy accepted six prints into their collection of pinhole images at the Pinhole Resource.  Recently, The Point of A Pencil  became a part of the  New Mexico State History Museum pinhole collection.  The rest of the images remain unshown.

After years of working on the LoupeHoles, I acquired in 2000,  a roll film pinhole camera, a Zero 2000. For about five years, I shot hundreds of rolls of film with this camera, self- portraits, portraits, landscapes and still life.  These images are not so dark, more about movement, soft focus, the dream-like state that Pinhole Photography can reference.  I photographed landscapes in and around the area where I grew up on the Kitsap Peninsula, west of Seattle.  Using this camera made me rethink the landscape, understand it not as a representation of reality but as a representation of memory.  In 2006, I started to teach digital photography only and pinhole photography was laid aside. I had no time for darkroom.  I needed to make a living and to do this I had to learn digital photography.

But pinhole photography did not languish.  I started the Pinhole Project, so anyone without a darkroom could make a camera on old school paper.  Lately, I have been wondering if I should not just ditch my digital cameras and go back to film and pinhole based image making.  I have realized that I am a very intuitive, low tech photographer in this high tech age.  Go to the archive on this website and take a look at the amazing array of images from over 600 photographers.   (www.janetneuhauser.com/thepinholeproject)  While I love digital photography (really just another form of image making), I miss the film based pinhole image, its mystery, its slowness, its magic.  I have been making the long exposure color negative images.  The next step is to clean the cobwebs out of darkroom and start again with black and white negatives.  So much to do.

FirstPinholePhotograph117Dixie cups on a potter’s wheel:  my first pinhole photograph, circa 1994

Butterknife118Butter knife on a napkin:  paper negative with positive.  First pinhole photograph with an 8x loupe attached to a camera, circa 1996

The Point of a PencilThe Point of A Pencil, from the series, LoupeHoles

Featured image:  Self-Portrait:  Day Off, made with a Zero 2000 pinhole camera

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