In my last post on pinhole photography I talked about how these cameras had taught me how to slow down, to appreciate taking my time. Today I want to write about how these cameras have taught me to see time.
One of the ways I like to talk about pinhole cameras when I am describing them to someone using them for the first time is to talk about their characteristics. I count three specific traits among the pinhole cameras I use: long shutter speeds, wide angle and infinite depth of field. For this essay I want to focus on those long shutter speeds because long shutter speeds mean you are photographing collections of moments rather than fractions of them.
Due to a pinhole camera's incredibly small aperture (think f138-f250) they generally have exposures that are measured in full seconds to several minutes. The average daytime exposure for my Zero Image or Reality So Subtle is 2-8 seconds on a bright day, 8-30 seconds on a cloudier day and 1-8 minutes if I am in deep shade or under the cover of a forest. Because one of the primary uses for longer shutter speeds is to incur motion blur, this means that when I head out to make pinhole photographs I generally keep my eyes peeled for objects in motion.
When I first started working with pinhole cameras I photographed many of the obvious moving things one might think to capture with longer exposures: water, waterfalls, clouds, carnival rides, etc. It is fun to make these things look all soft and silky or streaky with trails of light and color. But after a while I found myself less drawn to these types of moving subjects largely because they were predictable. I know what falling water is going to do over the course of a sixty second exposure... it's going to keep falling. So I started pointing my pinhole at other moving objects that behaved a little less predictably.
One of the first images I made in this vein was a 45 second exposure of the koi pond at the Japanese Gardens in Portland. When you walk up to the edge of the pond, the koi see you and immediately swim over but after they figure out you are not going to feed them they lose interest and drift off in their separate directions. That is what happened over the course of this exposure and after seeing the result, a chord was struck. I was fascinated by something, I was not quite sure what exactly at the time but I knew I was after something. I think it was chance. You see, I like the surprise of it. I like being in control of the process but not necessarily being in control of the result. I like serendipity. I like the idea that there are several ingredients being blended together for me to make these images and my cameras and I are just two of them and I am not solely in charge of all the others. So I go out and I look for places where this can happen. Often I am photographing crowds or people, but I look for other unpredictable moving elements as well - traffic is always a popular choice.
Nothing ever really stays the same does it? I suppose if my pinhole exposures were long enough, even waterfalls would do something unpredictable at some point. But my cameras have their constraints when it comes to time but those constraints still broaden the boundaries of what my eye can perceive when it comes to the passage of time and the change that occurs with it. When I use these cameras in this manner it does help me see time differently. I try to see where things start, go and end and compile those observations mentally. It helps me to pay attention to the passage of time not just its present status.