The Pinhole Point of View

A new generation of photographers is pushing the artistic possibilities of the simple, old-fashioned technique of taking pictures through a hole in a box

Pinhole cameras are almost comically primitive. All you need is a lighttight container, such as an oatmeal box, a cookie tin or a suitcase, with a hole in it. Typically homemade, pinhole cameras lack lenses, traditional shutters, light meters and focusing controls. Exposing a sheet of film placed inside may require 30 seconds, a couple of minutes or all day.

A growing number of serious art photographers now use pinhole cameras, often swearing off lens cameras altogether. This low-tech groundswell has been accompanied by a flurry of exhibitions, books, courses, how-to articles, cameras to buy or build, and, of course, Websites.

"The popularity of pinhole photography among art photographers is in part a reaction against the idea that a serious photographer is someone with six cameras slung over his neck who's constantly swapping lenses," says Terence Pitts, director of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. "There's a strong determination to prove that it's the artist, not the equipment, that makes the image." Besides being primitive, a pinhole camera is cheap, and it almost guarantees an unusual result.

A pinhole camera is a slow camera in a fast world. It doesn't admit very much light, so you must wait patiently as enough accumulates on the film to make a picture. With this camera familiar objects and landscapes are altered in a way that even a photographer can't predict. That, however, appears to be the attraction. Ilan Wolff, an Israeli-Dutch photographer living in France, has wrapped film inside the back of tilted cylindrical containers to produce weirdly distorted images of bridges, bedouins and cityscapes. "Every image is a surprise, which fascinates me," he says. Why take a picture, he asks, if you know exactly how it will turn out?

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