Pinhole

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

THIS SUNDAY IS WORLDWIDE PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPH DAY. It’s not an event I would have noticed or taken part in until this year, mostly because I didn’t even own a pinhole camera of any kind until about a month and a half ago. I didn’t go to school for photography, or even have any interest in taking photos until around the time I dropped out of college, so I never built a shoebox pinhole camera for fun or learned about basic optical theory – camera obscuras and near- and far-field diffraction – as part of a foundation course.

In the days of film, building a pinhole camera seemed like a lot of bother, and perhaps (shudder) a bit of math. Even when simple pinhole “lenses” (and yes, I know, a pinhole doesn’t have any glass in it so it’s not really a lens) became available for digital cameras I barely noticed. I suppose it was only in the last year or so, when my interest in getting something more (or, really, less) than a technically correct, “sharp” image returned again after twenty years, did I start shopping around for options to create “technically incorrect” photos.

Skull #4, Toronto, April 2020
Skull & onions #2, Toronto, April 2020

Late last summer I saw a Facebook ad for a pinhole zoom “lens” on Kickstarter. Made by Thingyfy in China, it seemed novel and a bit more flexible than other pinholes – basically just body caps with holes – so I pledged my money and waited. And waited. It finally arrived after spending months in transit and just in time for the coronavirus lockdown. I sat and stared at it for a week or so and finally pressed it into service while shooting several still lifes in my ad hoc kitchen studio.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

The raw images were a bit daunting – very, very soft and marked with many small concentric circles: marks from dust on either the UV filter you have to use with pinholes or on the camera’s image sensor. (I had been warned about this – nobody’s camera is perfectly dust-free, and with an aperture of roughly f165 the technical focus extends from infinity to the film plane.) After some work put into spotting the images in Photoshop – nothing I wasn’t used to doing with old scanned film negatives for years – I had to contend with the peculiar nature of pinhole images: While not technically out of focus, they’re nowhere near what you could call “sharp.” A friend and fellow photographer compared them to certain old, uncoated film lenses. But worse.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

Now, the look of old, uncoated lenses is something that interests me, but a lot of work had to be done both during and after pressing the shutter to get these images close to what I had in my mind. The first thing that was obvious was that contrast – often harsh, close to blown-out contrast – was going to be my friend, as the lack of glass to focus light on any spectrum meant an extremely diffused image. I needed a way to get deep blacks to take hold somewhere in the frame, since they were the only thing that was going to give the illusion of detail.

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020

It took three or four still life sessions to start producing frames like the one above – still holding detail in the middle of the tone spectrum, enough to create a sense of something sharp floating amidst all the ethereal softness native to the pinhole image. This also demanded a lot of work in Photoshop, using layers and the Unsharp mask to pull that detail out of the clouds and mud. I’d panicked a bit when I saw those first raw images, but after a couple of weeks of solid work – a gift that came with all the time and lack of distraction in lockdown – I began to find a formula that edged close to the peculiar “technically incorrect” goal that inspired all this effort.

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

This milestone reached, I decided to take my digital pinhole out into nature – the place where most pinhole photographers seem to use theirs, as bright daylight is pretty much the only place you might be able to take a shot at less than half a second exposure – perhaps even handheld if you push the ISO high enough. My original goal was Mount Pleasant, the city’s most picturesque cemetery within hiking distance of home. But complaints about violations of social distancing saw management padlock the gates, as well as those of Prospect Cemetery, conveniently right next to our house.

My fallback was Mount Hope, the midtown Catholic cemetery where my grandparents are buried, but that also got shut down, so I was obliged to return to High Park again, just a few months after I’d hiked it with my Holga plastic camera shooting an assignment for the Shacklands Camera Club. The park was also supposed to be closed to the public, but with 400 unfenced acres, that’s not really possible, and when I arrived there on a bright Saturday it was hardly empty, though the hikers, bikers and dog walkers were largely masked and responsibly apart from each other.

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

By this point I realized that hoping for shadow detail with the pinhole was mostly wishful thinking, especially when rich, black shadows were the only way to make sure you created any defining image detail at all. So I arrived at High Park (a 14km hike there and back from our house) with my tripod and camera prepared to look for striking silhouettes; another lesson you learn quickly with a pinhole is that composition matters more than ever.

I know the park pretty well; I’ve been going there since I was a child, and it’s a reliable source of inspiration. But even on this bright spring day most of the best images I got (apart from the one at the top of this post) were decidedly crepuscular; almost “day for night” in look, the afternoon sunlight transformed into moonlight, and surprisingly like the old storybook illustrations I’d been trying to take in the park for literally decades.

Lavender Creek Trail, Toronto, April 2020 (click to enlarge)

This was enormously satisfying. I’ve said for years that I’m basically a graphic artist hiding behind a photographer. (The sad part, of course, is that I’m actually a late 19th century graphic artist hiding behind a 1950s photographer. Try living with that identity crisis.) Finally, after several false starts when the sun and clouds refused to cooperate, I returned to a spot I’d noted on a hike a few weeks ago where I suspected there’d be a nice sunset.

So far the experiment with the pinhole – pushed along by an unexpected gift of time and motivation – has been pretty successful. I’m not sure if this “lens” will become a permanent fixture in my camera bag, but it certainly expanded the palette of potential pictures I might take in either personal or commercial situations. I still need to see how useful it is for portraits, and that’s an experiment that’s going to have to wait until “normal” – whatever that might be – returns.

Lavender Creek Trail, Toronto, April 2020
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Skull

Skull and onions, Toronto, April 2020

THIS ISN’T MEANT TO BE MORBID OR PROVOCATIVE. Or maybe it is and I’m just unable to acknowledge it for myself. The truth is that I’ve had a list of still life subjects pending for a long time now, and with the pandemic lockdown in effect, that list has suddenly been given priority, along with subjects like this one – a human skull I have had in my possession for at least twenty-five years now.

I bought it from an antique and interior decor store across from my favorite record shop on Queen West. I had wanted a skull for many years, ever since I became fascinated with vanitas still life paintings and the whole idea of the memento mori. I had a bit of extra money and, to be blunt, the price was right. It came home, wrapped in newspaper and carried in a shopping bag and it’s sat on my desk since then.

Skull #1, Toronto, April 2020
Skull #2, Toronto, April 2020

Shooting happened, as usual, in the kitchen – my lockdown studio for the duration. I worked late at night, over the course of two days when everyone was asleep, not because I thought the subject matter was disturbing but because I didn’t want any stray light from the kitchen windows to interfere with the very controlled setups I planned on using. One night was devoted to a more painterly lighting setup, the other to a brighter “high key” look. Over the course of the two nights I used every LED light I had along with all the gear I could find or build.

I’m a portrait photographer who has no subjects, so I felt obliged to get up close with the thing that’s always there, just underneath the skin of everyone I photograph. The skull has enormous resonance, as a symbol and an icon, but it’s a remarkably generic object at first glance – it’s hard to tell them apart without special knowledge of anatomy and forensics. I ended up concentrating on the peculiar textures of this skull – the cracks and seams and sutures. And I ended up with one shot that reminded me of the cover of Isaac Hayes’ 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul.

Skull close-up, Toronto, April 2020
Skull dome, Toronto, April 2020
Coronal and Sagittal sutures, Skull, Toronto, April 2020

I’m not superstitious about the skull. I’m aware that it was once part of a person, and I’m sure the supply chain that delivered it to my was probably pretty dubious, but if you believe in a soul it’s hard to imbue much to the bits and pieces we leave behind. I try to treat it with appropriate respect. (Though I haven’t given it a name – I’m not that much of a ghoul.) But it’s hard to resist the temptation to create my own simple vanitas, albeit with the scant supplies in the larder during this lockdown.

Skull and onions #2, Toronto, April 2020

There’s no great implied meaning to these photos. Of course people are dying – this week has been notable in my own circles for the passing of John Prine and Hal Willner due to Covid-19. So it’s inevitable that this choice of subject will have some inescapable resonance. If I was a medieval painter or a monk illuminating a book the message would be clear enough. And it occurs to me that this post is going up on Good Friday; as a churchgoing Catholic I guess I just have to say “Golgotha” and let that hang in the air. But I can’t control what meaning someone might read into an image, so here’s this week’s contribution to this brief, uncomfortable but vivid moment in history.

Skull #3, Toronto, April 2020
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Victorian Scrapbook #1

THEY SAY THIS THING COULD GO ON FOR ANOTHER TWO MONTHS, MAYBE THREE. I can’t say we’re suffering here – I’m one of those insufferable Gen-X types who can brag about social distancing since I was a kid. (Being a misanthrope also helps.) But my big worry is running out of things to shoot. That’s the one thing that could end up making me long for a “return to normalcy.” I don’t miss people, but I sure miss doing portraits.

I started collecting old scrapbooks and other paper ephemera a while back, when the potential of Mrs. Edward Cross’ address book became obvious. I found this one at an old paper show; they’re harder to find than you think – most people just throw them out when going through the hoarded belongings of dead relations and estate sale job lots. Photo albums have been hot for a while now, but as a photographer I don’t get much spark from shooting other people’s photos. Scrapbooks are another thing altogether.

(click on any image to enlarge)

I’m assuming it was put together by a young lady – probably unmarried, but I could be wrong. The book itself started life as a Province of Ontario geography textbook, and part of its charm is how the old maps and text peek through behind the pasted-in poems and newspaper clippings, engravings and scraps of colour product packaging, all carefully cut out and assembled according to a logic only the original owner could explain.

(click on any image to enlarge)

What always draws me into these old scrapbooks are the accidental juxtapositions, left stranded on the page long after context was obvious. It’s the sort of material that artists like Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell would refashion into surrealism, using the same sort of paper ephemera, back when the pre-WW1 world still resonated in living memory – past, but not distant past.

(click on any image to enlarge)

Now, of course, this is the very distant past – as far back from our world today as the French Revolution was from the person who put this together. It’s tempting to try to understand a scrapbook made when mass media was mostly printed matter as a sort of proto-Pinterest. My wife pointed out that this is also the sort of project that would get started during not-infrequent periods of isolation and quarantine – slow-moving summers away at a cottage or relative’s house by the seashore or in some distant rural enclave, or when an infection was suddenly raging away either locally or nationally, in an age before widespread vaccination and herd immunity. Which makes this all feel at least a little timely.

(click on any image to enlarge)

It’s hard to ignore the feminine preoccupations throughout this scrapbook – the sentimental poems and illustrations, the pictures of babies, kittens and puppies, the recurring interest in fashion, courtship, marriage, faith and family. It’s not fashionable to talk about gender stereotypes these days, but they’re hard to ignore as you go through these pages looking for some particular clue to help make the person who assembled all these scraps and clippings come into focus.

The only glimpse of an actual person appears just once – a pencil doodle of a shifty, skulking figure in the margin of a page. It might not have been put there by the owner of the scrapbook – it’s probably an artifact of one of the original users of the volume when it was still a geography textbook. Apart from that, the only other evidence of the book’s provenance or past is near the front, where bookworms or some other bugs have made a meal of the corners of several pages, creating another accidental juxtaposition in this ragged cross section of pages.

The book looks and feels undeniably late Victorian. There’s almost nothing to give it a specific date except for the inclusion of an anti-Boer poem, “Kruger and the Lion,” on the last page before the back cover – a little sliver of Imperial jingoism aimed at Afrikaaner politician Paul Kruger, “Slippery as a wiggling eel” and a “cowardly lion” according to the poet, one Linton West, himself now utterly obscured by history. It could, of course, have been made later, from piles of already-yellowing newspapers, magazines and catalogues pulled down from an attic by a bored young woman staring down many endless days with little to occupy herself.

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