Old technology sheds new light on world

The rise to dominance of the digital camera, now an essential tool for travellers and most other picture takers, comes as little surprise. But who could have imagined that there would also be a parallel surge of interest in one of photography's oldest formats, the venerable pinhole camera? Indeed, Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, in case you'd forgotten, will take place on Sunday (April 24). The first WPPD, held in 2001, had 291 participants from 24 countries. The 2004 version, by comparison, attracted 1,512 photographers from 43 nations.

One of last year's 41 Canadian contributors was Gibsons-based Daniel Bouman. Bouman, who juggles dual careers as a professional photographer and a conservation advocate (he's executive director of the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association), has long been fascinated by the pinhole format. "I first became interested," he says, "after coming across a book called Seeing for Yourself, by Roger Gleason, who used pinhole cameras to teach the basics of photography to high-school students." He was especially intrigued by the book's evocative images, all made by kids with cardboard boxes.

As we speak, we're actually standing inside a pinhole camera, Bouman's latest creation, on display until May 1 at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery and part of a photography exhibit called Light. Bouman made a small room at the gallery light-tight, then cut a six-millimetre aperture in the heavy black paper covering the window. The scene outside-a panorama of Gibsons Harbour, Keats Island, and Molly's Reach restaurant, punctuated in the foreground by the bare branches of a large tree-is projected, upside down, onto the walls, ceiling, and a movable screen that Bouman has positioned opposite the aperture.

As our eyes adjust to the darkened room, we're soon able to make out details: clouds, a flapping windsock, the government wharf. Where the light is strong, we can discern pale colours. Someone steps out the back door of Molly's Reach and lights up a cigarette; figures walk across the screen down Molly's Lane; an inverted car mysteriously parks itself along one wall. "The pinhole image is naturally dreamy," Bouman says. "It has a soft focus, not high-quality but universal."

Later in the week, Bouman will lead a workshop to help people make their own pinhole cameras. These won't be room-sized, of course; almost any container can be converted into a camera. Then, on April 24, those so inclined can use their new devices to take photographs and submit them to the WPPD Web site (www.pinholeday.org/) for future display. Why would you want to do this? "In many ways," Bouman claims, "I think pinholes are liberating. You work with simple concepts and inexpensive materials. You use your own hands and your own imagination. The experience is extremely direct and there's a lot of freedom of technique. So much of photography is shrouded in the language of advertisers and manufacturers."

You also connect with history. Pinhole imagery was noted as long as 2,500 years ago by Chinese observers. Aristotle commented on the phenomenon, as did Leonardo da Vinci. The first pinhole photographs were made in Europe in the 1850s; by the 1880s, commercial pinhole cameras-the equivalent of today's "disposable" cameras-were popular. With the advent of cheap, mass-produced Kodaks in the 1930s, however, the technique was forgotten. Artists began to experiment with pinhole images again in the mid-1960s, and some significant pinhole exhibitions and publications occurred in the '80s. Today, multiple resources are available, on-line and off, for pinhole aficionados, and commercial cameras are once again available. Scientists have also used pinholes to photograph X-rays, gamma rays, and high-energy radiation from laser plasma.

Inside the walk-in camera, Bouman angles the screen in different directions to show how easily the pinhole image can be altered and distorted. Experimenters have come up with numerous ways to transform pinhole imagery: some use multiple pinholes, others use slits instead of pinholes. Filters can be placed over the hole, or a zone plate (a series of alternating clear and opaque circles) can be introduced to diffract the light and create soft halo effects. You cannot have absolute control, Bouman emphasizes, over every aspect of the image. "You have to step into the flow of things, feel what you're doing, and be prepared to let the unexpected happen."

Bouman has exhibited his pinhole-and regular-images widely over the years and has an extensive collection of pinhole cameras. There are certain genres, he believes, that lend themselves especially well to the pinhole aesthetic. One is portraiture, where subjects must remain still for the lengthy exposures, thus creating unusual compositions or "visions", according to Bouman. He finds that remnants of old things make fine pinhole subjects and can result in contemplative images that viewers respond to with feelings of emotion. Ultimately, Bouman sees the pinhole process as a way to "recapture" photography. "It's the value of the hands-on experience," he says, "that's the real attraction, the sense of empowerment one gets from producing these wonderful images with one's own hands."

Andrew Scott's latest book, Secret Coastline II: More Journeys and Discoveries Along B.C.'s Shores, will be published in May by Whitecap Books. The writer can be contacted through www.andrew-scott.ca/.