Thursday, February 18, 2021

Pinholey self-portraits while reading books on photography

There was a problem with a light leak in the 4x5 Pinhole Lab Camera. I had fixed it but I loaded the camera and left it out in the sun for three days to make sure. It didn’t seem right to mix some developer for just one sheet so I had to come up with a project for this camera.

It’s also still very cold, so it had to be something that could be done indoors. The light leak hadn’t shown itself under less bright light. It would probably be OK. (The camera did turn out to be light-tight.)

I’ve been following the discussions lately in the Facebook group Photography Books and Theory but really haven’t had much to contribute. I worked my whole adult life in college libraries and read most of their TR classification, so I never had much incentive to buy photography books on my own. I do have a modest collection which I haven’t looked at for some time. The idea came to me to do a series of self-portraits while reading them.

I am still interested in experimenting with ultra-wide angle so I decided to use the 36mm setting. I also wanted to make sure I could reach the shutter from where I was sitting.

I’ve been getting a little sick of all the discussions about how to get the sharpest image with a pinhole camera and I’m starting to wonder if a lot of these people wouldn’t be better off just using a lens. In order to be as pinholey as possible I used the .55mm pinhole despite it’s being much larger than optimal at 36mm from the image plane. Since this was going to be inside, I also didn’t want to make hours long exposures. This set-up at ultra-fast f64 would help accomplish this.

The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot. Facsimile edition by Da Capo Press, 1969. Originally published in 1844. During the exposure I chose to start reading with Plate VI, The Open Door, which contains a quote which has always inspired me:

We have sufficient authority in the Dutch school of art, for taking as representation scenes of daily and familiar ocurrence. A painter’s eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine or a shadow thrown across his path, a time-withered oak, or a moss-covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings.

The scene is the dining room table and is very underexposed except for the book and the window. That may be appropriate since Talbot’s first negative was a silhouette of a window at Lacock Abbey.  

Photography: adapted from the Life Library of Photography. Barbara London Upton with John Upton. 3rd  Ed. Little, Brown and Company 1985.  Earlier editions of this book were the text book for the first photography class I took and for the class I taught in the art department at Knox College. I was reading from Section 3 on Lenses where they use pinhole images by Ansel Adams under the heading Why lenses are needed. Not very convincing in my opinion. This was at the kitchen table since much of it reads like a cookbook.

Photo-Secession: Photography as Fine Art, Robert Doty, The George Eastman House, 1960.  I was reading this at bedtime just before I got my Kindle a few years ago and it’s been sitting on my bedside table ever since. The photographs of the members of the Photo-Secession often resemble those made with a pinhole. In Chapter II: The Background, it gives a description of The Linked Ring Brotherhood with a quote describing their pictorialist principles by George Davison, whose photograph The Onion Field is probably the most famous pinhole photograph ever. There’s no mention of pinhole photography though.

Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer by Dorothy Norman, an Aperture Book, Random House,1960. The sun was streaming through the front windows in the living room which reminded me one of his early works which is Plate 1 of this book. The sun went behind a cloud just after I opened the shutter. Norman describes that for him photography “represented an entire way of life–a religion” That sounds like Pinholiness.

One Mind’s Eye: The Portraits and Other Photographs of Arnold Newman. David R. Godine, Publisher, 1974. Newman often portrays artists with their tools and works. The bedroom with my photographs on the wall, with a pinhole camera beside me, seemed like the appropriate place to read this.

Photographic Science, by Earl N. Mitchell, John Wiley and Sons. 1984.  I looked at the page with the only mention of pinhole photography in the book. With the diagram on the left page, he shows that if the image plane is further from the pinhole, the light is spread over a greater area and must be compensated for with a longer exposure, which explains why I chose the shortest setting on the camera for this project. He then states that “The image formed by a modern camera using a lens has the same characteristics as those attributed to the pinhole camera” and offers several equations which show how adjustable lens diameters complicate that.

Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women, by Julia Margaret Cameron. A&W Visual Library, originally published in 1926. Cameron was the first to unapologetically use soft focus, high contrast and the occasional acceptance of motion blur as tools of expression. To emulate her style I wanted to keep my head up so the book was set on a precarious stand. I didn’t dare to touch it. During the exposure, it was opened to her portrait of Sir John Herschel, who coined the word photography, invented cyanotype and came up with using Sodium Hyposulfate to fix photographs.

Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, A Pantheon/Rolling Stone Press Book,1983.  Looking through the book I noticed numerous full length and often partially dressed portraits with the camera at a relative low position. I took my shirt off and read it standing in the hallway.

Masters of Photography, edited and with an introduction by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. Castle Books, 1958. I chose to read this book in the living room with Spenser on the chair next to me because he thinks he’s the master of the house. I read the section on Peter Henry Emerson. His manifesto Naturalistic Photography emphasized “fidelity to actual human vision...that the eye sees sharply only in the center.” The extreme vignetting of this ultra-wide angle pinhole camera possibly illustrates that idea. I also read about Steichen, who comes from Wisconsin.

Nude Theory, Lustrum Press, 1979.  I picked the section by Duane Michals who has always inspired me by his serial approach, use of window light and because it was the only section with a man as the subject of the illustrations. He mentions that for most of the images he uses one second exposures at f16 which often leads to motion blur.

Edward Weston Nudes. An Aperture Book, 1977. In 1980 during the Winter Olympics I kept hearing commentators describe skating moves based on the athlete’s name who had originated them, such as Triple Lutz and Triple Salchow. I thought that would be a funny idea for an art competition. With two friends in classic Weston poses, with myself in the role of Nude, 1936, I did a piece titled Triple Weston. I have to confess that I didn’t do any reading during the exposure. Four decades on, I could barely fold myself this far and had to take my glasses off to lean my head against my knee.

The Pinhole of Nature, self-published by some guy on the internet, 2003. Since the book is as much about me as it is about pinhole photography, it seemed appropriate to include my reflection in the mirror while sitting on the bed.

Close to Home, Seven Documentary Photographers, edited by David Featherstone, Untitled 48, The Friends of Photography, 1989. For several years I was a member of the Friends of Photography. Their quarterly journal, Untitled, took the form of monographs on a single artist or concept. This one dealt with photographers who worked in the area where they lived. Since all the photographs in my project are already in my house, I thought the most appropriate place to read it was on my side of the couch, with Stewart on my lap.

New Landscapes, Untitled 24, The Friends of Photography, 1981. It didn’t seem right to do a book about Landscapes inside, so I went out in the cold and snow. Since it was about new landscapes, I tried to give it a contemporary flavor. It was quite bright out there so I switched to the .3mm pinhole. Can you tell?

All with semi-matte developed in caffenol.


  1. A great blog entry that deserves a better nomenclature than merely “blog entry.” This is art, performance art, even, and very inspiring, as always.

    The thing your work reveals to me is the power of consistency, multiplied over time. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I’m always surprised by your comments about consistency. From my point of view I’m all over the place. I guess you mean consistently putting in the effort.