The start of my life as a pinhole photographer was marked by death... the world turns in ways we cannot often predict. Let me explain - briefly - because all tales need a beginning of one sort or another.
In 2004 I was just two years into my tenure at Blue Moon Camera and Machine, my day job and home away from home. There were only three of us at the time: me, Jake (owner and boss) and Josey. We were a close knit group, we had to be working the hours we did under the stress of nurturing a small business based on film photography in the heydays of the digital revolution. To say we were merely co-workers wouldn't be fair, it was closer to family. So when Josey's birthday approached in the spring of 2004, Jake and I hummed and hawed over what to get her. Somehow or other we found this beautiful and intriguing camera made by a company in Hong Kong called Zero Image. They made these gorgeous wooden pinhole cameras. None of us had any experience with pinhole cameras at the time and despite the sea of equipment we swam in every day, pinhole cameras were still quite new to us. So we bought her one of their cameras, the 2000 model to be precise, which made 6x6cm images on 120 roll film. Sadly, she never received that camera. On a road trip back home to visit her family for Mother's Day and just a few days before her birthday, she was involved in a car accident. She spent a couple of weeks in ICU but eventually succumbed to her injuries. To say it was a tough and emotionally draining time for Jake and I would be mercifully understating it. But we were left with this pinhole camera, this intended gift that was never given, and it proved to be a seed waiting to grow. We kept that camera, coined it the Josey Memorial Pinhole Camera among ourselves and we vowed to take it out and use it. And that is where this story begins, but it isn't where it ends, not even close.
Fast forward over a decade later to today. If you bump into me on the streets odds are I'll have my Hasselblad over my shoulder. That camera goes everywhere with me and I love it like I love my right arm or legs or most any other integral part of me. As much as I love that camera though, I often joke that if I was stuck on a desert island with only a single camera I think I would have to be stuck with my pinhole camera, I owe it too great a debt to leave it behind. No other camera I have held in my hands has had a more profound impact on how I think or see as a photographer, and here I want to share some of the lessons my pinhole camera has taught me.
I was giving a lecture once on pinhole photography at the Oregon State Fair. In the slideshow I had an image of myself standing motionless in Lost Lake, on the flanks of Mt. Hood. I showed the image to the audience and remarked that it was a five minute exposure. A lady in the crowd raised her hand and exclaimed, "You stood still for five minutes?! You must have the patience of a saint." I was a bit taken aback at her incredulity even while completely understanding it. Standing still for five minutes shouldn't be a difficult thing, especially if you have a picturesque alpine lake and mountain peak in front of you. But it can be a difficult thing.
When I first got involved in photography I loved to hike. Living in Oregon I have no shortage of beautiful places to visit: waterfalls, mountains, beaches, or forests. So it was only natural that I combined my newfound passion for photography with my love of hiking, trekking out to beautiful spots and making photos of the places I visited. But I noticed at a certain point that the photography took over, or at least interfered. I spent much of my time and energy in these places bustling about looking to get one great photo or another. I spent all my time crouched behind a camera or lugging tripod and equipment about looking for a good vantage. I never just stopped and stayed still, enjoyed myself, emptied my mind and took in the place I had found myself. I had too many photos to make. But then I got into pinhole photography. At first I was borrowing the Josey pinhole but eventually I got my own and took it everywhere. The thing to realize about pinhole cameras is that in place of a lens, they use a tiny aperture drilled in a sheet of metal foil. The hole is so small that most pinhole cameras operate at f-stops around f128-f256. These incredibly small apertures mean that you need equally incredibly long shutter speeds to get proper exposure. On a bright, sunny day you may get away with a 4 second exposure but use slow film like I am fond of and head out into the dim confines of a Pacific Northwest forest and having exposure times of 4-15 minutes is not unheard of or even uncommon. And what do you do when you are waiting on a 15 minute pinhole exposure? Well, you learn to wait, that is what you do. Rather than become a frustration, the longer exposures became a form of freedom for me. With my pinhole camera taking over my tripod and rendering the use of my other cameras more difficult I felt more comfortable waiting, and watching, and enjoying. I could sit back on a tree stump or a creekside rock and enjoy the place I had come to... and still be making a photo.
It is often stated that patience is a virtue for photographers and many cameras out there encourage it but few do so on as consistent a basis as pinhole cameras. My pinhole cameras are always making me wait, which I have learned to do so gladly. That slowing down of my pinhole photography has, over the years, bled off into how I use many of my other cameras. After having spent years making long exposures with various pinhole cameras, I finally invested in neutral density filters for my Hasselblad and Pentax 67, and not just weeny neutral density filters either; I own two 9-stop filters, two 10-stop filers and a 15-stop ND filter, and I often stack them together for even heavier filtration. Now eight or 15 minute exposures during the day are normal for me and I sat there and waited for as long as an hour or 90 minutes for a single exposure. And I have to say that most of what I know about waiting on cameras I learned from those many minutes spent waiting on my pinhole cameras.
And that is where I am going to pause for today. Like my photography, I don't want to move to fast. I want there to be time to contemplate and sit with this idea. I know there is a value to being able to make hundreds of images a minute and thousands in a day. But I also know there is a value to being able to only make one or two images in an hour, to having time where you have nothing left to do but take your hands off your camera and step back, sit down and clear your head, open your eyes and look around a while. Sometimes doing nothing much at all is the best thing you can do, both for your photography and otherwise.