Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin

By Seán Duggan Back to


Though I have been using digital technologies in my photographic work since 1992, and the majority of my images today are made with digital SLRs, for the photographic project featured in this article I still have one foot firmly in the analog world of film and simple pinhole cameras.

For those who are unfamiliar with this type of photography, a pinhole camera has no lens, just a tiny pinhole through which light enters and exposes the scene. I had made occasional forays into the world of pinhole photography throughout the 1990s, but in 2000 I began to explore it more seriously. The camera used for this series is a ZeroImage 6×9 multi-format camera that is essentially a simple wooden box; the only exposure “control” is a small wooden slide that covers and uncovers the pinhole. The multi-format capability consists of wooden dividers inside the camera that can be repositioned in a series of notches to change the format of the negative to 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7 or 6×9 (the photos in this series are all 6×9).

For the first test roll that I ran through the Zero, I carried an old typewriter down to the edge of a river, not far from my house in the Sierra foothills. I set the ISO on my DSLR to the same as the ISO 400 film in the pinhole camera and used the DSLR as a light meter to determine a correct exposure for the scene.On the back of the ZeroImage camera are two circular brass dials, one engraved with apertures and the other with exposure times. By lining up the exposure values from the digital shot, I then checked the position on the dial for the aperture of the pinhole (f/235) to see what the corresponding “shutter speed” was and exposed the film for that amount of time. In the case of the typewriter, it was about 20 seconds (so far, the exposure times for the photographs in this series range from one second up to about five minutes). The test roll results were very good, and that shot of the typewriter was the first in a series of photographs that I have been working on for the past four years.

The Clocks, Seán Duggan, Fifteen seconds in a snowstorm
The Diary, Seán Duggan

One early creative decision came from the camera itself. The notches visible on the top and lower edges of the film are the notches referred to pre- viously that are used to change the format of the negative. I found this particular edge “signature” to be visually very interesting and decided to print the photos full frame and include the edges as part of the image. I also liked the edge lettering, and the use of different film types to include a variety of edge markings was a conscious choice. With this decision, however, the technical challenges of using the camera increased. Because I am printing the images full frame, there is no cropping, and when using a camera with no viewfinder, one has to be very careful with composition. All framing decisions are made based on prior experience with the camera, which provides me with a good sense of the approximate field of view that this wide- angle pinhole produces.

After the full frame/no cropping “rule” emerged, another important rule became clear to me: there would be no digital compositing used to place the artifacts in the scene. I have nothing against digital collages; I enjoy creating images using those techniques, and I even teach a workshop on Creative Collage with Adobe Photoshop. But for this series, a central and very important part of the photographs is my experience in making them. And part of that experience is viewing the actual artifacts in the scene and finding unexpected arrangements and relationships with the surrounding landscape. I also enjoy overcoming the logistical and physical challenges that can arise when making some of these photographs, whether it involves wading through thigh-deep water in a Florida cypress swamp (and discovering an alligator nearby), or a winter snowshoe trek up the side of a Sierra mountain. The process and the journey of making the image are just as important to me as is the final destination of the finished print.

Once the negatives are developed, the analog process moves into the digital darkroom where the selected images are scanned and then opened into Adobe Photoshop for final enhancements that include overall brightness and contrast modifications, “dodging and burning” of specific areas in the scene, and final “seasoning” with a blend of irregular toning that combines the original neutral values of the black and white negative with two different strengths of sepia. All tonal and color modifications are applied non-destructively using adjustment layers and layer masks for maximum creative flexibility.

The Gears, Seán Duggan, Parts of a machine, but no longer part of the machine; and in the background, the river, the ‘machine’ that made the canyon.

The Landscape of Metaphor

The most fundamental way to view the series is as a combination of the still life and the landscape. In working on this project my previous experience with the landscape as a subject has been reinvigorated and reimagined by pairing it with the enigma of the artifacts I place there. Though these images certainly celebrate the incredible diversity, beauty and mystery of the natural world, the landscape also serves as the stage setting for quiet and slightly surreal tableaus created by the presence of the artifacts.

I also see the photographs like short stories or poems, small fictions that suggest a narrative, inviting the viewer to step in and follow where it may lead them.The photographs in the series, individually and as a group, represent the frame-work of a story, but one in which you only see a glimpse of what has happened or what is about to happen. It is up to the viewer to fill in the rest. Ansel Adams once wrote that “there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” I regard the role of the viewer in finding meaning in a photograph, even if it is a meaning or interpretation that is only apparent to them, to be just as important as the role of the photographer in creating the image.

The structure of the series allows me to explore different ideas and concepts through the placement of certain artifacts in specific landscapes, or simply enjoy the serendipitous chance of an unexpected juxtaposition. Many of the artifacts are obvious in what they might represent, while others are more enigmatic. I choose artifacts based on how interesting they look in a purely visual sense, as well as how they might serve as symbols for other ideas. Some exist not only as visual contrasts with their surroundings but also as symbolic and metaphorical keys that transform the scene by opening a conceptual portal, inviting the viewer from a landscape of earth and sky to a landscape of metaphor and hidden meanings.

The Package, Seán Duggan

On Pinhole Photography

I am sometimes asked why I go to the trouble of using a wooden pinhole camera with no viewfinder to make these photographs. Wouldn’t it be easier to photograph these images using a digital SLR and then use Photoshop to create the “pinhole look”? In some respects in might be easier, but it would also require more work in Photoshop, and the view would not be the same as that made with an actual pinhole camera. But the main reason I photograph them the way I do is that using a pinhole camera is a very different photographic experience from using a DSLR (which I do use for other bodies of work). And that experience is a key part of my enjoyment of this series. Being out in many different landscapes with these artifacts and using a simple wooden camera with the same level of technical sophistication as the cameras used by the early photographers in the mid 1800s is an experience that cannot be achieved using a modern digital camera.

The photographs and the experience of creating them exist on more than one level, and it is this multi-level quality that keeps the series fresh and intriguing for me, a crucial component for any long- term creative project. As I write this, the Artifacts series is still very much a work in progress, and though I do not know how many images the final series will contain, I feel that I am probably more than halfway there. I have ideas for certain artifacts and specific landscapes to photograph before I can call it a completed body of work. The series also requires travel in search of different landscapes, and the very nature of the photographs, like pinhole photography itself, involves a slower, more contemplative approach. But I am enjoying the journey very much; the act of creating the photographs, working on them in the digital darkroom and the gentle swirl of ideas that accompanies them is very rewarding. The creative muse still speaks to me through this channel. And when the creative muse is calling, it’s always a good idea to keep answering that call.

The Zero Image 6×9 pinhole camera (supported by a Joby Gorillapod) on location, photographing an artifact of an uncertain origin.

Product Resources Cameras: ZeroImage 6×9 Multi-format Pinhole Camera, Canon EOS 5D (used as a “light meter” for the pinhole camera and documenting); Tripod: Joby Gorillapod, Manfrotto 055X; Film: B&W medium format film (various emulsions); Software: Adobe Photoshop CS4, Lightroom; Computer: MacBook Pro, Sony ArtisanDisplay; Epson Perfection Photo 4870 Scanner.

About the Author

Seán Duggan
Seán Duggan is a photographer, author and educator with a traditional, fine art photographic background combined with nearly two decades of extensive real world experience in the field of digital imaging. He is a co-author of The Creative Digital Darkroom (O’Reilly Media, 2008), Photoshop Artistry (New Riders, 2006) and Real World Digital Photography, 2nd Edition (Peachpit Press, 2004). You can see more of the Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin series at