Thoughts on Lensless Photography

Thoughts on Lensless Photography

It’s been two years since the Pinhole Project began and well over 2000 people have made an amazing array of long exposure images. Very,  very inspiring.  I intend to do a blog post on some of the images soon.   Bear with me while I update the archive and  create a website just for the Archive in 2016.   In the meantime, I have been shooting with several pinhole cameras/devices  recording the image on film or digitally.  The images here represent new work with a few of these cameras. Last summer I shot with the 4 x 5 pinhole, my old buddy, onto  color negative film while on the Northern California coast.  These images are different than the ones I made  two years ago there with the same camera.  They frighten me a bit:  a cross between faded Kodachrome postcards of my youth and an off-beat surrealist future where the world is unpopulated and lonely. The image below, Salt Point South, is a ten minute exposure during  the golden hour, crashing waves flattened out and all the world with a magenta cast .  I love standing by the camera during the exposure, knowing I won’t forget the smell of wind and the glorious light.  This image is of course not “reality.”  It is 20 minutes of time compressed onto a sheet of film exposed though a tiny little hole punched in metal on to sheet film.  I did not even get to see it for almost a month.



The image above, Usal Beach,  was made  on a close damp evening, another long exposure, around fifteen minutes. There were a lot of people around that  beach, walking through, unrecorded.  The place had a kind of creepy air to it, four miles down a bumpy dirt road, once a “doghole” where loggers lived and worked a hundred years ago, creating a company town which has totally disappeared.  Now the place is run down, full of ghosts and garbage, discarded bullet casings and strange cries in the night.

This past year I have also been making images with several homemade  camera obscura boxes that project an image through a pinhole into the back side of the box.  A hole drilled  beneath the pinhole holds the lens for DSLR.   It is a wonderful way to record the pinhole image without film. Inspired by one of my heros, Abelard Morell and his camera obscura room photographs done around the world, I decided to try my own hand at homemade portable obscura boxes.  I am interested in the way the images feel contained yet expansive at the same time.  And I like that while I am making these images I can stand in front of the camera and create a self portrait of sorts.  Here is diptych from my old haunt, the Argo Trainyard, just a few blocks from my house.  This image was made from two images taken side by side, both long exposures on a windy afternoon and I was able to stand in for the first exposure. For the second, I had to shield the box from the wind.

train yards with camera obscura box

Another image made with a similar box/contraption, taken outside my front door, with my neighbor standing and chatting during the five exposure.


Both of the above images were inspired in part  by a project that I almost got to do but in the end did not–I was hoping to make an old grain silo into a camera obscura.  These boxes started as models for that project and evolved into life forms of their own.  I do have a self portrait from that silo experience;  the pinhole in the silo projected the image of me onto the wall opposite as my DSLR teetered on an upturned bucket inside recording  the projected  image.


There are many more experiments.  I give you a few of my favorites.  Why do I like these images better than a tack sharp image made on a tripod with a DSLR or a film camera?  What do these images have that those other images do not?  I don’t know the  answers yet, but I do know that I like to record the passage of time with long exposures —  more than a minute and less than oh say 90 days. I  like the fact that I  have to keep the camera (DSLR) and the camera obscura box together both on separate tripods and move them around together as one big contraption. With the large format pinhole and film I like how the time exposures change reality. These cameras  make  photography difficult and rewarding — wonderfully so in a world where photography has become so very rote and predictable.   Lensless photography is simple but not easy, modern yet historical, unpredictable and thrilling.


Note:  The featured image was taken with a great big old cardboard obscura box, with the DSLR.  An early experiment, the box had a light leak on the corner which created a lovely red line.  And there was some junk inside the box that could have been taken out but wasn’t.  Heres to the happy accident.