Some weeks ago, a couple very nice folks reached out to me from the alps of Slovania, said they have made a sublime pinhole camera with incredible wood and magnets and wanted to know if I’d like to try a prototype. I was already sending them my mailing address before they got to the magnets part. The last time I’d made an image with a pinhole camera, I think Gerald Ford was president. But it was a different time. Back then, I could not get my hands on new equipment fast enough and the promise of professional grade imagery seeped into my young blood and I tossed the shoebox aside to make way for a complex 35mm and the promise of a fast-paced photographer’s life.
Forward with pace, would be a good description of my life. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot and fueled my forward movement with a kind of constant abandonment of past and present. In some ways, this is intrinsic to the role of photographer, who does a shoot, delivers files and moves on to the next. But in other ways, this is how we all live. Constantly moving forward, with pace.
One thing about that kind of ever-forward position in life is that you cannot relax. Running, after all, is the same as falling — you just outpace the crash. Most people I know talk about this similarly. It’s not that you can’t relax, you seem to be more comfortable not relaxing. It doesn’t even feel right to do things slowly anymore. I recently spent a day on assignment with a musician, jetting on his plane and taking photos while he took meetings. A rock star — someone who, if he wanted, could relax for weeks at a time. Yet his staff said he never takes a day off. Not one. He literally works every day. If neither my friends nor my clients can relax, how or why would I? And this is not just my circle, or rock stars, it’s everyone. I’ve heard it described as a PTSD culture of stress, addiction and anxiety. Sound about right?
So, in a mindset like this, of course, yes — allow me the luxury of holding onto a nicely-sanded wooden box with snappy magnetic construction. Please. Send it as fast as you can.
And they did.
As promised, the Ondu Pinhole Camera is not the shoebox pinhole camera construction I remembered from grade school. Crafted, considered and made with 120mm medium format film in mind — it’s more akin to using a Brownie camera than the pinholes of old. Loading, winding and unloading film is similar to the Brownie, the red window to see your film advance is also similar, and the’ve developed a very nice magnetized shutter open/close that is in that same realm. But unlike the Brownie, there is no lens or mirror anywhere in or around this thing, nor are there the “complicated” mechanics of various apertures. It’s mostly an airy box and one very teeny hole through which film is exposed, many times smaller than f/22. Flick open, flick closed — that’s it.
I want to describe using it, but rather than write in photography manual terms — which has already been done much more thoroughly than I could ever do in other places — it seems more appropriate to talk about its affect on the creative process. This is, to me, what matters most with any equipment: how does it change what I do, how I do it and what comes out of it? And from that, does it have a place?
Finding A Place
The first question I knew I had to answer was “where should I shoot?” With a very limited number of shots to take — and a high likelihood that only a few of them would turn out — I needed my location to be something purposeful. And so what the box did is it made me stop and think about that. 120 film is wide, but it’s not nearly as wide as L.A. Where would I go? Why? It was a stunningly paralyzing question. And why hadn’t I asked myself this question before now? Where is my singular L.A.? This became the overriding thing to figure out that a simple box suddenly forced upon me. More than a simple location scouting exercise, it had me looking further inside myself.
I grew up on the beach. The beach is my home, my safe place, my nest. I’m more comfortable on the wet sand, with the sound of rolling surf and the texture of small shells than anywhere else on the planet. The wood box put me in a place to want to visit something meaningful, even if it was something the world takes pictures of all the time. Rather than seek out something ever new, ever newly-viewed and snapped from some ego-driven angle of originality — I traveled like a salmon to a place of origin. And, funny enough, in my 25+ years in the city, I hadn’t thought to just shoot the pier in Santa Monica, from the beach.
This immediately gave the pinhole camera a role in my arsenal of cameras. I have equipment for pretty much any scenario — a photojournalism camera, a studio camera, a camera for vacations and video. But I discovered a new opening: a camera just for special places. That’s actually a real need, only realized once I was forced to find it.
The Ondu can be handheld, but with such a teeny hole, exposure times are one second and slower. So, the way to do it right is to bring a tripod. This means getting to your location, carrying a wooden box and sticks. I recently watched the new movie about Van Gogh, At Eternity’s Gate, with Willem Dafoe. Much of the movie is him walking with his paints and stand, looking for inspiration in nature — and then being in it.
This is the path of an artist who must find a place through feeling, set-up and employ the slow process of creating, one stroke at a time, allowing the experience with nature and the environment to intermix with the creation. And this doesn’t happen when shooting at 1/1000th of a second with what essentially amounts to a small computer system in the shape of a 35mm camera. That is the tool of one who falls ever forward. The pinhole camera is for those willing to journey to a place where standing still and upright is required.
Slow Walk, Slow Talk
And, finally, I think the thing that struck me the most was how much conversation is inspired and enabled when using the pinhole. I came to the same spot twice — once to shoot with color film and then again to shoot with black and white. The first time with my daughter and the second time with another photographer friend, who was also shooting a manual medium format camera that required lots of set-up. In both cases, our walks and conversations were slow, and both times, the entire process took the better part of a morning. An entire morning, for just a few shots.
With this kind of lengthened time, the moment was as much about the things we talked about as the images gathered. I can’t look at the images taken here and not think about that day and the experience that surrounded it. To me, they are one and the same thing. And this is a far different experience than when I look at the hundreds of images taken at a typical shoot, where usually little is said and what is spoken lacks any kind of deeper human search or connection.
Furthermore, others want to talk to you, too, because you are taking your time. During the process of taking the shot of the pier, people stopped to chat with me, including the lifeguard who came over to see what I was doing. Not to kick me out — as happens in so many places you go in LA — but out of pure curiosity. He had questions. He was interested. We talked.
Having grown up on the sand, getting in conversations with lifeguards was a big part of my life. I’d forgotten about that. Lifeguards are good people, with a job that is forever non-digital and of-the-moment. I liked those daily chats, about surf conditions, weather patterns, sea life and community. And, as a matter of photographer’s habit, I asked if I might take his photo.
My experience shooting with a pinhole had many of the same qualities of any other shoot: I went somewhere, I took photos, and I even ended up taking some unexpected shots there, too. But here’s the big difference: I took much fewer shots and it extended over a much longer period of time and so life seeped in. In the end, what developed on film was not only that which occurred between film and light, but that which occurred between photographer and place.
In a cultural moment where we fall ever faster forward from one thing to the next, I believe that what gets lost is the dynamic range of life. Streaming music, digital cameras, cold brew on tap, lack of downtime, back-to-back meetings, breakfasts, lunches, social media and dinners… we have turned ourselves over to the idea that the frictionless, constantly-moving life is a winning life. But like an album played on a record player, it’s not only the broader depth of tones ingrained in vinyl that makes those notes resonate, but also the purposeful way the act of using a record player allows the space for them to seep in. And we simply lose the effects of a deeper, more engaged experience of analog when we choose the faster, more-perfect alternative. A generation of people now are walking the planet who have never put an album on and sat with friends over wine and talked while the album played. Kept talking as the album stopped, got turned over and then finished.
Same is true for photography. There’s an endless move forward on technology and quality. But in that world, there’s a place for The Ondu Pinhole camera. A return to analog, yes, and the deeper nature of photography and medium format film for sure. But far more, a return to the human experience of life.
Thanks for reading. For more photography, I’m at Instagram.com/joshsrose.