We live in an era where sharpness, literalness and hyperrealism dominate the modern photographic terrain. In spite of this, my own photography is actually informed by the golden age photojournalists of the 1930s and 1940s, post-war photo essays from the 1950s, and John Szarkowski’s New Documentarian leanings of the 1960s. I wasn’t always this anachronistic. Rather, I used to be even more so.
My earliest photographic tendencies skewed dramatically toward pictorialism, early surrealism and the Czech avant-garde. Although these weren’t exactly harmonious movements a century ago, my late 20th century perspective allowed me to pick and choose elements from each without buying into an entire philosophy. I became a “pictsurrealist.” In the fanciful world of my youthful daydreams, I would be the new Frantisek Drtikol. In the fanciful world of my recent dreams, I would be the new Garry Winogrand. But in the real world, I’m simply Egor — a perennial photographic outsider.
Perhaps the greatest thing about being unpopular is that you don’t have to worry about alienating your fan base — you have none. So, for this reason, I’ve always recklessly infused my mid 20th century documentary stylings with a sprinkling of my early 20th century surrealist tendencies, while accepting a fair amount of pictorialist qualities in photos where sharpness would otherwise be the norm.
The contradictions of my own photographic disposition are a perfect reflection of photography’s own 180-year struggle to define itself. Is a photograph’s primary purpose to produce a visual record of times, places, people and events? Or do photographs exist primarily as objects of stand-alone beauty? Should a photo tickle the intellect or the eye?
Each generation of photographers does little to settle the debate, as each tends to pick a side and adhere to it at all cost. Last year, in an article entitled More Poe than Van Gogh, I proposed an alternative view that generated substantial internet discussion, but ultimately did nothing to resolve the argument. And, truth be told, I chose my side several years ago — deciding that my strongest inclinations were toward documentary photography and that I would use the camera to illustrate those little slices of life that people might otherwise miss. There would be no more room for postcards in my portfolio. But this mortal coil is not a linear path, and I’ve recently begun to experience a shift back toward my own “pictsurreal” proclivities.
Because I am now so publicly identified with the documentarian side of the great photography debate, my backslide into pictsurrealism has caused me a fair amount of self-induced embarrassment. But why should it? Why must one’s photography fall under a single mandate? Maybe my duelling penchants aren’t actually at odds with one another — maybe they’re simply two sides of my own personal photographic coin? If you were to flip a coin every day for the rest of your life, would you expect it to always come up heads? Of course not. So, day in and day out, when I point my camera and flip that photographic coin, why would I expect it to always come up documentarian? Some days, the coin is going to say “pictsurrealist.” And so, rather than fighting against the coin toss, I decided to just go with it.
Fortunately, for the sake of both bank account and sanity, my photographic tools are the same regardless of the outcome — it’s only my eye and my technique that change with each flip of the coin. There is, however, one tool that I tend to employ much more in my pictsurrealist work than in my documentary work: the pinhole lens. Actually, “pinhole lens” is a misnomer since pinholes are completely lensless. They are, in fact, air. A teensy tiny bit of air, but air nonetheless.
Shooting through a pinhole is like shooting through a wormhole. It’s a shortcut through time. Pinholes create a timeless look, which is a quality I desire no matter which side of the coin I’m shooting. If I take a visually appealing photograph today, I’d like its appeal to be one that would resonate with viewers 100 years in the past, as well as 100 years in the future. Similarly, if I document some interesting aspect of human nature, I want that photo to be relevant across generations.
Pinholes and rangefinders are an ideal match. I’ve written many past articles about the rangefinder advantages for documentarians, but I could make an equally strong case for the pictsurrealist. Traditional SLRs and modern mirrorless cameras both provide through-the-lens subject monitoring, but rangefinders use a viewfinder that’s separate from the lens. This means rangefinders, unlike these other cameras, actually let you see what you’ll be photographing with that pinhole. For me, this is a huge benefit. It means that each time I make a pinhole, I can take a few shots, learn its field of view, and then use it exactly like I would a real lens.
And, yes, I said “make” a pinhole. Of course, you can purchase pinholes for the Leica (and, for convenience sake, I frequently use one made by Leica Goodies), but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even an optical physicist) to design a pinhole lens. A strip of gaffer’s tape and a sharp object are all you need. Granted, my homemade pinholes aren’t exactly objects of beauty, but they work … and every pinhole I make is different. For example, the one shown in the following photograph (and fondly dubbed, the “Psychopathilux”) is actually a piece of tape that I stabbed multiple times with an X-acto knife, then stuck to the front of the M9.
And here are a pair of photos from this particular experiment:
As with everything in photography, love and life, the pinhole is not perfect. Those who are attracted to the idea of a “lens” with nearly infinite depth of field should know this does not mean everything from 1 cm to infinity is impeccably sharp — rather, it means everything is equally unsharp. Also, I would suggest that anyone who suffers from obsessive-compulsive sensor cleaning disorder forgo digital pinhole photography. If you ever freaked out over how dirty your sensor looked at f/22, just imagine what it’s like at f/140. You don’t just see every molecule of dust on your sensor — you see its atomic structure. Pinhole photography demands intimate familiarity with Photoshop’s assortment of heeling brushes and, perhaps, a prozac prescription.
But if you own a rangefinder and aren’t averse to bucking the sharpness, literalness and hyperreality trend, there’s little else to prevent you from experimenting with a pinhole. And, given the current scarcity of Leica lenses, the pinhole might just be the only new “lens” your Leica will see for quite some time. So take a look through the wormhole — and see what’s looking back.
©2012 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: All photos accompanying this article were taken with a pinhole rather than an actual lens — some pinholes were store bought, and some were homemade.
This article (along with many of its associated comments) first appeared on January 18, 2012 in my f/Egor column for the Leica Camera Blog. If you find these photos enjoyable or the blog beneficial, please consider DONATING to this site’s continuing evolution. At the very least, please leave a comment and let the ULTRAsomething community know your thoughts.