What Happened To Pinhole Photography?

Traditional pinhole photography…

I learned pinhole photography while taking a photography course in college in the early 1970’s. We made our own cameras out of paper mat board and made our own pinholes out of brass shim purchased at an auto parts store. Then we learned about judging exposures using paper negatives and how to develop the paper negative and then make a print. It took a few classes over a few days to learn the basics of all this, but it was fascinating to do. It was satisfying, fun and rewarding. I became totally hooked on the endless possibilities for the design and construction of cameras and the variations in photographs these cameras could produce. The combinations of nearly infinite depth of field, long exposures, movement, camera shapes and more seemed infinite. Over the next few decades, I never found an end to these possibilities.

It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that I connected with other people using pinhole cameras to create art. By this time I had received an award for one of my pinhole photos in the North Carolina Museum of Art biennial exhibition and knew of the work of some well known artists like Ruth Thorne-Thomsen. Then I came across the book “The Visionary Pinhole” by Lauren Smith and “Pinhole Photography” by Eric Renner. Seeing the work of others engaged in pinhole photography was invigorating and spurred me on into new experiments in the medium.

Along came the internet and I started a web site devoted to pinhole photography, “Pinhole Visions”. Through this web site I connected with others and exhibited monthly online exhibitions of pinhole artists. I tracked down and shared dates and descriptions of gallery exhibitions around the world. The “pinhole discussion list” on my site was an email communication (listserv) that anyone could join and participate in. Pinhole enthusiasts shared information and enjoyed explorations into their images and ideas. It was an exciting time for many of us.

Then, one Valentine’s Day, we decided to initiate a day of celebration of pinhole photography. The idea came from a talented craftsman and pinhole photographer in Hong Kong named Zernike Au. We created a website to host a gallery where we could all share pinhole photographs that we would take on a specific day of the year, the last Sunday in April. That was in 2001. 291 pinhole photography enthusiasts from 24 countries contributed to the gallery of that first Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. All their photos were taken on April 29, 2001. The gallery included all types of lensless devices (pinholes, zone plates, slits, multi-pinholes), cameras (handmade/commercial, flat/round), light-sensitive materials (b&w/color, film/paper/Polaroid). One thing that was not included was digital photography.

It was not just that digital photography was still young at that time. Rather, there was a “spirit” of pinhole photography that digital cameras simply did not fit into. We struggled with our camera building, pinhole making, darkroom chemicals and all nature of experiments to discover new ways of seeing and exploring our ideas and ourselves. Digital imaging removes most of that activity, doing the ‘thinking’ for you, and did not fit into our world.

Living in a digital world…

The Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD) is now 15 years old. I have been a part of the group of people who have kept the celebration going for most of these years. I wrote the web site from scratch and have kept it up to date as changes in web site design and technology have come along. So I’m not technologically adverse or technologically challenged. In fact I enjoy keeping up to date with technology. But over the last few years, as I have watched the submissions that come into the WPPD gallery after every pinhole day, I’ve become increasingly disappointed in what I see. By 2004, images made from digital cameras with ‘pinhole body caps’ were allowed into the gallery. This meant that photographers or hobbyists with expensive digital SLR cameras could take a body cap that fit their camera, cut a hole in the center and mount a pinhole in the hole. Soon, they could simply buy the body cap already mounted with a pinhole. Now, for even more money, they can buy special high-end adaptors for their pinhole photography experience.

But what IS this digital pinhole photography experience? From browsing recent WPPD galleries over the last few years, the average digital pinhole photographer seems to take fuzzy, flat images that have compositions very similar to most any point and shoot digital camera. Digital cameras are very restrictive as compared to handmade cameras. You cannot bend or slant the back of a digital camera the way you can one you make yourself. Its ironic that a $500 digital camera with a pinhole body cap cannot make the variety of images that a $5 (or less) hand made camera can do.

I did make some digital pinhole images in the late 1990’s, using a Barbie digital camera that I modified by replacing the plastic lens with a pinhole. The digital image was about 120 x 160 pixels I believe. And my interest was in seeing how much an image could be abstracted by its small size and then blown up in size and still be recognizable. I enlarged these images to about 24 x 36 inches and I was probably the only one who knew what they were taken of. But this kind of experimentation is pretty much missing from the digital entries in the WPPD galleries

Anyone can do it…

So what is the attraction of digital pinhole photography? I don’t really know. I suspect that the typical digital pinhole photographer is seeking a greater satisfaction than his conventional digital photos provide, so hears about pinhole photography trending on the internet. If you have the money, you already own a digital SLR camera and can just buy a pinhole adaptor of some for to take a pseudo pinhole camera and presto!, you have a pinhole photo. The only thing missing is the experience of making a camera, learning darkroom photography and obtaining the skills for making pinhole photographs from scratch. The “spirit” of digital pinhole photography is an empty one. Or at least a shallow one.

As the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Sadly, my eyes see less and less beauty in the WPPD gallery as digital takes over more and more of the gallery space. The galleries continue to attract camera makers, experimenters and darkroom photographers each year. Many people in workshops young people in classrooms around the world learn to build cameras, expose negatives and develop prints in the spirit of pinhole photography each year. But I also notice more and more traditional pinhole photographers switching over to a digital pinhole each year. Its so darn easy! Anyone can do it. Really!

My last pinhole day…

I didn’t make a pinhole photo on Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day this year. This is the first year since 2001, that I have not participated in the event. It just became too sad and disappointing for me to look at all those digital photos filling up the gallery. I’ll stick to enjoying the same spirit of pinhole photography that has appealed to so many people over the decades since the beginnings of photography.

Related links

Jon Grepstad: Pinhole photography
Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day
How to Take Pinhole Photos with a Digital Camera
The Spirit of Pinhole Photography

2 thoughts on “What Happened To Pinhole Photography?”

  1. I have been a part of WPPD since 2006. ‘Pinhole Visions ‘ was an important connection. I always have a workshop and a community celebration for this event. We make cameras and learn to use a traditional darkroom. You have been a true inspiration to me. I make and use pinhole cameras in my work. I regularly put cameras out for months at a time to make solargrams. We who love pinhole are still out here. Thank you Gregg Kemp!

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