Photographers celebrate the strange charms of pinhole images

(Minneapolis) Star Tribune, Mary Abbe, Published April 25, 2003

At a moment when techno-junkie photographers pride themselves on having the newest, smallest and most sophisticated digital equipment, pinhole camera aficionados stick to the basics: cardboard boxes, potato-chip cans, candy tins, a Ritz cracker.

The ultimate in low-tech equipment, a pinhole camera is just a light-tight box or cylinder with a tiny hole punched in it. Photographers place film or photographic paper in the container and, by covering and uncovering the hole, admit light that forms an image on the negative or paper.

Bill Erickson of St. Peter, Minn., made one of his many pinhole cameras out of a cylindrical oatmeal box with a Ritz cracker stuck to one end with peanut butter. He used one of the holes in the cracker as the aperture and made a nice, crisp, interesting picture of two skulls — a large animal devouring the smaller human.

Erickson’s photo, titled “Carnivore,” is one of the more curious items in “MinneAperture,” a fascinating and astonishingly diverse selection of pinhole photos at the Minnesota Center for Photography through May 4. Curated by Thomas W. Miller of Coon Rapids, the exhibition showcases the work of 12 nationally and regionally prominent pinholers, as practitioners of the genre call themselves. Their images range from tiny black-and-white vistas of New York City to large still lifes.

“If I could ever articulate why this is such a fascinating medium, it wouldn’t be so interesting any more,” said Miller, 49, a St. Paul native and professional software designer who became obsessed with pinhole photography after taking a course in photo processing eight years ago.

He owns many pinhole cameras, but his favorite is made from a couple of potato-chip cans big enough to hold an 11-by 14-inch sheet of photographic paper that he uses as a negative.

“There is a whole physics to pinhole photography,” Miller said. “But there is a metaphysics, too, something mysterious that happens when people use and apply this technique.” Besides the astonishing simplicity of the camera design, pinhole photographs have some distinctive features.

Because they have no lenses, pinhole cameras can’t be focused or adjusted for distance the way 35-millimeter cameras can. Even so, most pinhole images are clear, although somewhat soft-focus or distorted. Exposure times must be long (from 15 seconds to several minutes or even days), so anything that moves (tree branches, waves, people) will be fuzzy or appear ghostly. Scale distortions are common, with foreground objects looming unusually large against distant backgrounds. Most importantly, the absence of viewfinders makes framing an image tricky.

“There’s a lot of serendipity,” Miller said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen because there’s no viewfinder, and it takes a lot of time and work to learn what will make a good image, let alone a compelling image.”

Miller’s contributions to MinneAperture were made with a double-slit camera. Instead of a circular pinhole opening, the double-slit admits light through two long narrow openings. The results are colorful ribbon-like images in bright, graphic patterns.

The images by Boston-based Willie Anne Wright are similar to the kind of black-and-white narratives that might come from a standard 35mm camera. From her “Southland” series, they depict a ghostly Southern belle type — a pretty blonde with bouffant hair and white dress — in abandoned houses whose barren landscapes and shabby decay are poetic counterpoint to the woman’s loneliness.

Michael Bayard’s pinholers are much more experimental — tiny images of New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge and other urban sites that he took with a camera fashioned from a plastic 35mm film canister. (The “camera” is included in the display.) Remarkably detailed, the images are oddly cropped, twisted and distorted but utterly compelling in their eccentricity and intimate scale.

The remaining images include large impressionistic figures — angel, gargoyle — by Gregg Kemp, ethereal nudes by Robert Wilde, beautifully composed cyanotype still lifes with butterfly and star-chart themes by Jessica Ferguson, evanescent dreamscapes by Guy Glorieux and clever multiple-exposure landscapes by Dan Beers.

Thomas Hudson Reeve’s origami cameras really explode the creativity envelope. He made a pyramid and two rectangular boxes out of photographic paper, punched a tiny hole in each, exposed a scene and then poured developing chemicals into each box. Unfolded and spread flat, each paper camera is now a somewhat creased photographic print.

Nancy Spencer and Eric Renner, a New Mexico couple, submitted five remarkable color still lifes, each about 2 feet tall. They are surrealistic images whose piquant sociopolitical flavor is suggested by such titles as “Moonrise Over Manifest Destiny” and “Bunny bin Laden and the 72 Virgins.” The latter is a wacky color image of the most wanted man surrounded by pink rabbits holding a toy television.

With so much left to chance and guesswork, pinhole photographers endure a lot of failures.

Twin Cities photographer Jeff Korte, one of the region’s most accomplished pinholers, said, “If I come back with 50 sheets of film after a trip, I’m happy if I like five of them.”

Korte’s atmospheric black-and-white pictures of Lake Superior landscapes are among the show’s best. The most striking is “Artist Point and Feather,” a moody image that crumples and breaks up at the edges. A ghostly feather arcs across the top of the image, an effect he made by pressing a feather into the wet emulsion of a Polaroid negative.

While he uses a simple pinhole camera to expose his negatives and then processes the film in a traditional dark room, Korte uses a computer to digitize the images and print them on an inkjet printer. His combination of low and high tech produces luminescent prints of frozen landscapes and restless waters with a mysterious molten sheen.

“What the pinhole camera imparts to these images is a sense of memory,” Korte said. “Because of the time involved in taking them, they get fuzzy and detached, and details fade away. What’s left is the living, spiritual soul of the lake.”


What: Remarkable color and monochrome images by 12 internationally and regionally prominent photographers who used pinhole cameras, many of them handmade and eccentric, including one with a Ritz cracker aperture.

When: Thru May 4. Where: Minnesota Center for Photography, 711 W. Lake St., Mpls.

Event: International Pinhole Photography day, Sunday. Photographers around the world will take images with pinhole cameras and post them on the Internet. New Zealanders traditionally lead off and post the earliest images. Last year’s event produced 902 images from 35 countries, still available at