Reverence of the Pinhole

A number of years ago, after years of shooting exclusively digital, I felt like I needed to slow down as a photographer. I wanted to trade, at least occasionally, the ease, precision and instant gratification of digital photography for something that required me to spend more time with the subject - to really immerse myself in the meaning and composition of each frame.

Photographs by Michael Falco

I was missing the mystery of photography, the magic that happens in the box. I wanted to put some of the guesswork and intuition back into my image making. This led me to the pinhole camera.


To shoot with a pinhole camera is, quite literally, to get back to basics. The cameras have no viewfinder, shutter or lens, per se. The pinhole camera is a simple box with an aperture to let the light in and film in the back to capture.


The cameras can be made from a shoe box or a coffee-can but making strong, well composed images with the cameras can be challenging. These were challenges I relished and were hurtles I approached with athletic zeal.


For instance, the handicap of having no viewfinder to compose with, after working with the cameras for a while, actually became a blessing. I began to experience the entire landscape, walking into the compositions and then carefully positioning the camera to make the photographs; the process unhurried and deliberate.


What I did not anticipate is that stripping back to this most basic method of shooting would somehow yield images that also seemed more elemental...


I soon realized these simple cameras had an uncanny and remarkable ability of depicting and rendering landscapes. The cameras somehow looked deeper into the subjects and I actually found myself experiencing these landscapes and the photographic process in a deeper way.  


The tiny fixed aperture creates a soft infinite focal plane - a canvas where details are blurred allowing the "feeling"of the landscape to come through. By obscuring the details the pinhole camera manages to capture the very essence of the subject.


The minuscule amount of light entering the camera requires long exposure times; the wind blows, rivers flow, the clouds move, the earth rotates...measured in multiple seconds or minutes each image is sort of a living record of a moment in time.

Where digital photography is like good non-fiction, sharp and detailed, pinhole photography somehow has the profound emotional honesty, the subjective truth of a great novel. Each image carries with it a story, or many different stories.


In addition to this I've found that the soft quality of the pinhole photograph encourages the viewer to linger on the images. While viewing the image the observer inadvertently fills out the blurred information with his or her own memories and experiences unconsciously becoming a participant in each image they encounter. They are images to ponder on.


In this age of instant photographic gratification and the tsunami of imagery in social media the pinhole camera, for me, is a sort of anecdote. These rudimentary cameras have helped me to rediscover and appreciate the subjects that inspired me as a young photographer.