f/Egor: Shooting Through the Wormhole

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.

-grEGORy simpson

grEGORy simpson is a professional “pounder.” You may find him pounding on his computer keyboard, churning out articles for both the Leica Blog and his own blog at photography.ULTRAsomething.com. Or you may hear him pounding on a musical keyboard, composing music and designing new sounds. Frequently, he’s out pounding city pavement and photographing humans simply being. This third act of pummeling has yielded a photography monograph called Instinct, which has given Mr. Simpson a fourth vocation — pounding on doors in an attempt to market the darn thing. Follow these and other photographic exploits on the ULTRAsomething facebook page.

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  • Gregory,

    thank you for another thought provoking article.

    the questions you raise are very valid, and yet there is no right or wrong answer.
    over-analyzing issues or talking about them just takes time away from what we should be doing, i.e., just take good pictures.
    ultimately, WE decide WHAT to shoot, HOW, which moment in time to capture … and WHY. let the pixel peepers debate over sharpness and resolution, who cares?
    who decides what is art and what is not?
    over the holidays i was in amsterdam and went to see an interesting exhibit at the van gogh museum, ‘Snapshot –
    Painters and photography 1888-1915’, which showed how several painters embraced the new tool (the portable camera) and used it for/with their art.
    that is what the camera is, a tool which we use to express ‘something’.

    on a less serious side, i can only imagine the horror that many purists must have felt seeing your M9 covered in duck tape! 🙂

  • Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I’ll address each of them below:

    David 1: Holga’s are, indeed, several orders of magnitude cheaper — *IF* you don’t already own a camera, some gaffer’s tape and a sharp stick. One of the points of this article (and I’m guilty of shoving more points into an article than will fit) is that anyone with any interchangeable lens camera, which will operate without a lens attached, can experiment with pinhole photography. It’s fun and it’s essentially free. The fact I built this article around the M9 is merely one of convenience — it’s the camera I most frequently carry for my documentary work. I will grant that, in general, I prefer the pinhole look with B&W negative film because the extra dynamic range provides a wonderful tonality that’s lacking somewhat in the digital experiments. I have, in fact, ‘pinholed’ both my M2 and my M6 TTL in the past (as well as nearly every other camera I’ve owned). When pinhole image quality really matters (and I recognize the oxymoron in that statement), I’ll shoot with a Vermeer 6×6 medium format pinhole camera — it’s nearly as inexpensive as the Holga, but looks much nicer on the shelf. 😉

    David 2: I’m glad you drew some inspiration from this post — that’s the ultimate goal for any of these articles I pen for Leica. Thank you for commenting.

    Stefano: Thank you for your continuing feedback. I always feel like I must be doing something right when you take the time to check in on an article.

  • Found this post via Popular Photography today. I really enjoyed the details and the photos are beautiful. I recently started a similar project but have yet to post anything online. Very inspirational. Hope to see more!

  • Alisha: Although I’m perplexed by how my ever-aberrant photographic inclinations managed to receive a mention on Popular Photography, I welcome the irony. I also welcome your comment, and the knowledge that this article has helped to inspire. Good luck with your project!

  • Enjoyed the post. As someone who shoots mostly pinhole it’s fun to see someone experiment. I love the playground horse image.
    I beg to differ on the sharpness point (no pun intended). Pinhole images can be surprisingly sharp as long as the hole is matched to the focal length. Too large or too small results in fuzz. People are sometimes shocked to find out my photos are pinholes.
    I’ve dreamed often about shooting M9 pinholes, but I also dream about converting Ferraris into grease cars…on my budget it’s the same dream.
    I’ve turned my Nikon into a pinhole but don’t like the results because of the small sensor size. I shot a nice series of abstracts, though. Two advantages of digital pinhole are instant results and the ability to shot over and over until you get the results you want. Still, I prefer shooting my 120 film pinholes.
    Thanks for the article.
    Square Peg Pinhole

  • I found this article via a photo contact and I am happy that I did. I’ve always felt the camera is a “tool” to assist the photographer creating their vision instead of the other way around. It’s nice to see the Leica being put to good use on such creative and inspiring work such as this! Sharpness is overrated 🙂

  • while i learned about the pinhole technology from this article, some of those pictures look like the ones i take when my unstablized camera/lens is set for manual…

  • Well, I see there’s a fresh new batch of comments, all deserving of a response:

    Herschel: Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply and for giving any potential pinhole newbies a more complete “picture” of the pinhole scene. I’ll admit these photos (and this article) favor the “bad” pinhole, and I’m probably (definitely) guilty of glossing over the higher fidelity possibilities of pinholes. Obviously, gaffer’s tape and a pointy stick do not make for an optimized pinhole, but I enjoy the experiments. Similarly (and like you), I’ve found pinhole lens caps to be less than optimum (though much better than the pointy stick method). As I mentioned in a previous response, when pinhole image quality really matters, I’ll shoot with a Medium Format pinhole camera. I get much greater sharpness (and tonality) that way… and it’s good to remind people that not all pinhole photos need look as grungy as those I chose for this article.

    blue chameleon: You are 100% correct. Usually, when someone buys a hammer, it’s because they already know they want to drive some nails. Rarely does someone buy a hammer and then, because they now own a hammer, walk around looking for something to hit with it. Yet this is the approach many people take to photography — they buy the gear and then look for something to shoot with it. That always seems a bit backward to me.

    L: Based on your comment, I can pretty well assure you won’t like the photos in my next article: “how to make a camera stabilizer out of bungee cord.” 😉

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