Poetics of Light: Pinhole Photography

BY Douglas Fairfield, May 10, 2014

Laura Gilpin, The Ghost Rock, Garden of the Gods, 1919. 

In 2012, New Mexico photographers Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer donated their Pinhole Resource Collection of nearly 6,000 images and 60 pinhole cameras amassed over 30 years to the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives in Santa Fe. Poetics of Light: Pinhole Photography, on view at the New Mexico History Museum through March 2015, is the first exhibit culled from that collection.

With more than 250 images by nearly 100 photographers from around the world, the show offers a range of historical and contemporary explorations of pinhole photography. The mechanics of the medium, dating from the 1880s to today, consist of a no-lens, light-tight container with a pinprick hole allowing light to strike an emulsified support – be it paper, metal, or film. The basic concept traces back to the camera obscura, first utilized in the 16th century.

Bill Wittliff, The Church at Ranchos de Taos, 2000.

There are 40 cameras on display, in addition to a range of images including tintypes, cyanotypes, SX-70s, and platinum, Van Dyke, and pigment prints. One of the earliest images in the exhibition is a photogravure from 1890 by Englishman George Davidson titled The Onion Field, a bucolic scene with nondescript structures in the distance. The Ghost Rock, Garden of the Gods (1919), is a gorgeous black-and-white print by Laura Gilpin that is both mysterious for its image of shadowed rock formations and as a document of place. 

More recent standouts include The Eiffel Tower (1982), a toned print by Ilan Wolff that presents a skyward perspective of the iron structure pliably configured like a rollercoaster. The inherent distortion of the pinhole camera renders Bill Wittliff’s sepia-toned image The Church at Ranchos de Taos (2000) otherworldly, with darkened vignetting around the edges. And in the politically charged TV Woman (1995) by Leah Stubbs, image takes precedence over technique. One is immediately drawn to Stubbs’s manipulative restructuring of a woman’s body — a television monitor is placed atop a nude body posed upon a table in an otherwise unoccupied room, a meditation on female identity. The majority of pinhole photographers in the exhibit, though, allow for the built-in characteristics of the medium to influence the images, producing a range of intriguing results.