Seeing the Palace Through a Pinhole

PalacePinhole (2)

During the 2012 Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, Heather Oelklaus, a photographer and print workshop supervisor at Colorado College, was talking with some friends about the wonders of capturing the world the old-fashioned way. One of them asked her about the largest pinhole camera she’d ever used. At that point, it was an aluminum trash can that required two pieces of 16×20” photo paper for film. But the question made her want to go even bigger.

“I proclaimed that by next year’s pinhole day, I would be shooting with a truck,” she said.

LittleMissSunshineIt took some scouting around before she found a 14-foot 1977 Chevy box truck with an uncanny resemblance to a yellow Kodak film box. She tackled drilling, painting, designing and light-tighting it while her imagination reeled out possible photo opps. In 2013, the newly designed pinhole truck, dubbed Little Miss Sunshine, took to the open road, shooting enough images to stage a show this year at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, Colo.

By then, Oelklaus (learn more about her by clicking here) had fallen in love with our exhibit, Poetics of Light: Pinhole Photography. “When I saw it the first time, I wept,” she said. “It sounds melodramatic, but to know there were people and a museum that understood what I loved about pinhole photography overwhelmed me.”

Photo Curator Daniel Kosharek and Palace Press Curator Tom Leech found out about her big truck and hatched a plot to shoot our beloved Palace of the Governors.

IMG_4876-300This fall, Oelklaus arrived on a beautiful morning and recruited nine people to place 84 pieces of black-and-white darkroom paper on the truck’s walls, using tiny magnets. The Palace was exposed for 60 minutes, then the sheets were taken into a darkroom to develop.

“As the prints were coming out of the darkroom, many of the participants enjoyed putting the large-scale puzzle together so we could see the fruit of our labor,” she said.

We’re now looking for the perfect place to display the 5×20’ image, a grand celebration of pinhole artistry.

“The outside world squeezing through this tiny aperture and being projected on the inside of my camera truck inspires me,” Oelklaus said. “Recording the world differently and over long periods of time is a main theme for my recent work.”

Pinhole Photographers, Unite!

When we decided to showcase some of the images and cameras in the museum’s Pinhole Resource Collection, we knew that thousands of visitors would become enchanted. Little did we know how the photographers themselves would react.

When Poetics of Light: Pinhole Photography opened April 27, 30 photographers from around the world arrived in Santa Fe, eager to see their work included in the exhibition. And, it turns out, eager to meet one another. They met the evening before at a private reception generously hosted by Verve Gallery. And by the time the opening rolled around, their camaraderie had an old school reunion feeling to it.

Some of them purchased copies of the Museum of New Mexico Press book, Poetics of Light: Contemporary Pinhole Photography, then passed them around for signing almost as though they were yearbooks. Here’s astrophysicist Ed Fenimore signing someone’s copy:


And here’s some of the gang gathered in the museum lobby after shooting a group photograph (yeah, they took lots of photographs) in the Palace Courtyard:


Guest curators Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer founded the Pinhole Resource in San Lorenzo, NM, and donated its 6,000 photos to the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives in 2012. Upstairs, in the exhibit area, Renner (at right) greeted old friends and photographers:


And out in the Palace Courtyard, photographer Donald Lawrence sat on a chair surrounded by photo-developing chemicals, carefully working on a new negative the traditional way:


“I always thought of myself as a loner,” said Lawrence, who lives in Camloops, British Columbia, and whose underwater kayak camera is on display in the exhibit. “Being here shows me that I’m really part of a community.”

We’re especially grateful to all the other folks who showed up on Sunday, yet another part of our community, people who are just learning that they may want to be part of that Pinhole Photography Fraternity, too.

Poetics of Light: Pinhole Photography is on display at the New Mexico History Museum through January 10, 2016, so there’s plenty of time to come and …. check out how a pinhole camera works:


…test a simple camera obscura device:


…and learn how camera obscuras work:


Crazy ’bout a Sharp-Dressed Man

BenConradInSuit-2Pinhole photography, at its heart, combines the most low-tech materials with the highest ideals of art. Nowhere can that be better seen than in Ben Conrad’s pinhole suit.

Lately, the only place to see it has been the Conservation Lab behind the museum’s administrative offices. There, Casey Mallinckrodt, an intern for the Conservation Department of the Museum of New Mexico, has painstakingly repaired cameras that consist of little more than cardboard, duct tape, electrician’s tape and glue. In 1994, Conrad used Velcro to affix 125 of the rickety cameras to a pair of Big Ben coveralls and a motorcycle helmet. Working with assistants in a darkroom, he loaded the cameras with film. His helpers covered him with a tarp and ferried him outside, where they lifted the tarp to expose the film. Quickly covering him again, they returned to the darkroom to develop the multi-eyed vision of his surroundings.

As Conrad explained the purpose in 1995: “The pinhole suit is an experiment to see what it would look like if the pores of the human skin were camera apertures. … (I) want to photograph on locations in public areas that are under surveillance, such as banks, airports, parks and grocery stores. With the pinhole suit I’m exposing myself and exposing the film. Where the 35mm is a spectator, the pinhole suit is both spectator and spectacle.”

Caroline Lajoie, designer of the exhibition, Poetics of Light: Pinhole Photography, opening April 27, has devised a way to display the suit on a mannequin surrounded by the images it took.

As basic as Conrad’s materials may have been, nothing goes on exhibit without conservators taking a serious look at them. Mallinckrodt did just that, even subjecting various parts of the suit to spectral examination, solubility tests, and Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy. Knowing the suit’s roots, her report almost reads scientifically tongue-in-cheek: “The motorcycle helmet is structurally sound. … There are areas of fine cracking in the outer layer of plastic that may be the result of impact or deterioration of the material, but these cracks do not impair use in this assembly.”


100 books, 56 cameras and 6,000 pinhole photographs

Mysterious, artistic, and as low-tech as an oatmeal box, pinhole photography has captivated everyone from schoolchildren to professional photographers for more than a century. The Pinhole Resource Archives, the world’s largest collection of images, books and cameras, just joined New Mexico’s largest archive of photography, the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives at the New Mexico History Museum.

The collection was a donation from Pinhole Resource Inc., which is based in New Mexico and led by Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer. (The image at left is “Brooklyn Bridge, New York City,” by Ilan Wolff, 1987. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives HP.2012.15.369.)

“In looking at other possible repositories for the Pinhole Resource Collection, we felt the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives had a tremendous web presence, which would make the collection accessible to people worldwide,” Renner and Spencer said in a prepared statement. “In addition, with the staff’s enthusiasm and interest in pinhole images we felt the collection would have a good home here in New Mexico.”

The Photo Archives has already digitized hundreds of the images, which can be searched here (click on “Browse Pinhole Resource Collection” or type the word “Pinhole” into the search box).

“The Photo Archives and the state of New Mexico is fortunate to be the repository for this world-class collection of pinhole photography. There is no other collection like it and is a tremendous addition to the resources made available to the public through the Photo Archives,” said archivist Daniel Kosharek.

Even in this digital age, pinhole photography remains an intriguing medium. Its continued popularity has been celebrated every April since 2001 with Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. The 2010 event drew 3,387 images from 67 countries.

An exhibition of images from this unparalleled collection of pinhole photographs, representing images from New Mexico and around the world, is scheduled for April 2014 Poetics of Light will coincide with Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day.

(The image at left is “Anne S. in front of Jack B.’s Pool,” 1984, by Willie Anne Wright. She was the first pinhole photographer to place Cibachrome positive photographic paper directly into her 11”x14” pinhole camera. Wright’s photograph, a five-minute exposure, graced the cover of the first issue of “Pinhole Journal” in 1985. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives HP.2012.15.763.)

In the 5th century BC, a Chinese philosopher noted the inverted image produced through a pinhole—an effect that led to development of the camera obscura and serves as the fundamental quality of pinhole photography. Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Leon Battista Alberti advanced the knowledge of pinhole camera obscura imagery, creating a basis and understand of one-point perspective. In 1850, Sir David Brewster, a Scottish scientist, took the first photograph with a pinhole camera.  By the mid-1980s, a variety of pinhole cameras could be purchased by anyone who wanted to create images without creating the camera.

In its most simple description, a pinhole camera is a lens-less camera with a small aperture. The interior of the “camera” (which can be, yes, an oatmeal box…or a traffic cone…or the human mouth…) contains a piece of film that records the projected image over periods of time that can range from a second to a year.

When the atomic bomb test was conducted at the Trinity Site in New Mexico, Julian Mack, working for the Los Alamos National Laboratories, documented the explosion with a pinhole camera (image at left; Palace of the Governors Photo Archives HP.2012.15.775).

Pinhole Resource Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to pinhole photography across the globe, was formed in New Mexico in 1984 by Eric Renner. He began working in pinhole photography in 1968, while teaching three-dimensional design for the State University of New York at Alfred. Images from his 6 pinhole panoramic camera were shown in the first exhibition of the Visual Studies Workshop Gallery in Rochester, New York. Consequently, one of Renner’s images was included in the Time-Life Series The Art of Photography, 1971. Through exhibitions and workshops, he met pinhole artists throughout the world and worried that their work might become as lost as the thousands of images taken during the Pictorial Movement from the late 1880s to early 1900s.

After forming the nonprofit, he created the Pinhole Journal, and in 1989 was joined by Nancy Spencer, co-director of Pinhole Resource and co-editor of the journal, which ceased publication in 2006. Their collections included images from Europe, the Mideast, Asia and the Americas, books about pinhole photography, and dozens of pinhole cameras, one of which dates back to the 1880s.

The Palace of the Governors Photo Archives contains more than 800,000 prints, cased photographs, glass plate negatives, stereographs, photo postcards, lantern slides and more. Almost 20,000 images can be keyword searched on its website. The materials date from approximately 1850 to the present and cover the history and people of New Mexico from some of the most important 19th– and 20th-century photographers of the West—Adolph Bandelier, George C. Bennett, John Candelario, W.H. Cobb, Edward S. Curtis, Charles Lindbergh, Jesse Nusbaum, T. Harmon Parkhurst, Ben Wittick, and many others.

The Archives actively seeks material from contemporary photographers as well in order to document the past 50 years of visual history in New Mexico. Recent acquisitions include works by Jack Parsons, Herbert A. Lotz, Tony O’Brien, Steve Fitch, David Michael Kennedy, John Willis, Ann Bromberg, and Cary Herz.