Memories & Explorations

Working with a Pinhole Camera

By Craig Barber Back to

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As a boy, I grew up in a small village where farming was important and my free time was spent hiking in the woods and exploring the natural world. My village was straight out of Norman Rockwell − with me, a freckle- faced boy bicycling past farm houses and white picket fences, tree lined streets, waterfalls in the middle of town, country stores, barking dogs and kindly neighbors. Then, when as a young man my country sent me off to war, my youthful ideals were altered in unimaginable ways.

Now, years later my work is very much about memory and is an exploration of both where I come from and the quietness that surrounds us, if we just stop and listen. Over the past 15 years I have created a visual diary in which there is sadness and hope, beauty in quiet decay and the gradual rebirth of the land. A land of memory filled with stories. I look with my camera and my heart at what remains, what has been reborn.

In the series, Ghosts in the Landscape: Viet Nam Revisited, memory has drawn me back to the landscape of my youth and the war I fought in. This work is not about nostalgia or rehashing events of war, but is instead about understanding my youth and my journey through adulthood. This, beauty and the beast, is the emotional thread that runs through my work and is what the pinhole camera, with its deliberate pace and contemplative work- ing methods, allows me to convey.

The slow pace of the pinhole is important to me. It provides a connection to my subject that a faster camera wouldn’t allow. Many of my images require exposures ranging from five minutes to an hour. These long exposures reveal an intimacy with my subjects that is distinctly different from what happens with an exposure of 1/125 of a second. Generally, I am at a given spot photographing from 30 minutes to an hour. During this time, not only do I set up the equipment and make the exposure, but I have the time to contemplate my immediate surroundings: what caused me to stop at that location. Sometimes I discover its connection to my past−implied or real.

Sapa Hotel, Viet Nam series

We Entered Another World is such an example: a footpath surrounded by dense vegetation with an unknown bridge providing a way out. A footpath not unlike the many I walked as a young Marine, and now, as a not so young photographer. Beauty surrounded by uncertainty. With Sapa Hotel I like not only the Escher feeling of this balcony, but also the remnants of an old French colonial lodging house sitting above the small Vietnamese trading village with mountains and fog separating this part of Viet Nam from China in the distance: tile and stucco juxtaposed against palm frond buildings and dirt roads.

My Ghosts in the Landscape series was made as either diptychs or triptychs, each a kind of poor man’s panoramic camera. Years ago I saw a body of work by Lois Connor, who works with a 7 x 17 banquet camera, and admired the panoramic format, yet couldn’t afford the film or the equipment. Following the old adage about “necessity being the mother of invention,” I set about determining a way to achieve my goal of creating panoramic images with a limited budget and a cardboard pinhole camera.

At first I attempted building an 8 x 20 camera where I inserted two film holders end-to-end, but didn’t like the fact that I lost information where the bottoms of the two holders came together and created a void of information in the image’s center. Thus began a variety of camera experiments until I settled upon two camera boxes, resting at right angles to each other upon a plywood base I constructed for the top of my tripod. With sighting lines penciled along the top of each box and each box having a field of view of approximately 90 degrees (yet converging in the center of the image), I suddenly had a 180-degree panoramic camera. I created a camera that exceeds the peripheral capabilities of the human eye. While I use two, sometimes three sheets of film for each composition, I consider it one negative that just happens to come in multiple parts, all exposed and printed simultaneously. Given the length of the exposure and the expense of the film, I almost never bracket. Also, because most of my photo expeditions tend to be on the long side, sometimes out for three or four months at a time, and because of the sheer weight of 8 x 10 film, there is a limit of how much film I can actually carry with me. I don’t travel with assistants, so I am somewhat limited. This limitation is sometimes disappointing, yet part of the package. When I goof up, I’m provided with motivation for a return trip−I have a very Zen attitude about it.

Echoes, Havana series

The Havana Passage series began from a much different place; though I did not travel to Cuba as a young man, it was very much a part of the political landscape I grew up with, forbidden and mysterious for most American citizens. When the opportunity came to travel there, I naturally said yes. I suddenly had an opportunity to visit this country, unspoiled by mass consumerism and global trademarks, which has remained a huge question mark for those of us to the north. Cuba is a unique blend of Spanish colonial and 1950’s Americana, without a Starbucks in sight. Traveling to Cuba I was able to observe, understand and document the cultural landscape before globalization begins its impact.

Memory, again, is a major component in this body of work but with a slight difference. This time, instead of it being my memory, it is the memory of the land and all that populates it. In Juxtaposed we see a 1950’s American automobile icon parked with a ghost resting nearby; is this the ghost of Havana past or the ghost of Havana to come? In the distance a contemporary building dominates the landscape. With Echoes the connection is more personal, in a photographic way. The stairs to the right remind me of work I did years ago in Italy, the mural connects with Viet Nam, yet the setting is all Cuba. Always a thread.

Juxtaposed, Havana series

Without a doubt, I feel that my strongest work has always been made in places where I have an emotional connection, where memory is an important component. The images I create: contemplative and introspective, personal and insightful, work best when there is a connection to the heart. They are the pages of my visual diary. A few technical notes: all of my pinhole cameras are handmade, by me, from cardboard, gaffers tape, brass shim stock (for lenses), and felt for a light trap. For the Viet Nam series I shot 8 x 10 Kodak Tri-X sheet film, developed in Kodak HC 110 Solution B. The Havana series was shot using 12 x 20 Ilford HP-5 sheet film, also processed in Kodak HC 110 Solution B.

My images are hand-coated platinum palladium prints that I make in my studio and print on Cranes paper. I purchase all of my platinum and palladium chemistry from Bostick & Sullivan in Santa Fe, N.M. and my film from Darkroom Innovations in Arizona. The purchased equipment I use includes a Gitzo tripod, Fidelity Film Holders (8×10) and AWB film holders (12×20), with this last item custom made by Alan Brubaker who does terrific work. All else I construct myself, just like the hand-coated prints, it’s all about hands on.

Finally, why do I use a pinhole camera? I simply enjoy the way pinhole “sees” the world, a vision that is slightly askew, a vision that parallels mine. And I enjoy the fact that everything is not in my control, that chance plays an enormous role in what I do. As long as I’ve worked with the pinhole, my images still have the ability to surprise and astound me.

Product Resources: Film: Ilford HP5-Supplier: The View Camera Store www.view camerastore.com; Developer: Kodak HC-110; Holders: Custom by: Alan W. Brubaker www.filmholders.com; Paper; Cranes Natural White Wove; Other: Bostick & Sullivan platinum and palladium materials.

12″x 20″ pinhole camera used in Havana.

About the Author

Craig Barber
CBarber
Craig J. Barber travels and uses antiquarian processes and focuses on the cultural landscape. For 15 years he has focused his camera on Viet Nam, Havana, and the Catskill region of New York State, documentingcultures in rapid transition and fading from memory. His work is in collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Brooklyn Art Museum; the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY; and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has received grants from the Seattle Arts Commission, the Polaroid Corporation and the New York Foundation for the Arts. In 2006 Umbrage Editions published his book, Ghosts in the Landscape: Vietnam Revisited. For more info visit www.craigbarber.com.