Using a pinhole camera / by Kate Mellor

I have just finished a talk to students about my use of the pinhole camera - some of the visual and theoretical reasons why I originally used it and continue to do so. I showed them a particular camera which I’d had made and pointed out its various features. It is the real deal - not a digital pinhole, although I have one of those - but totally analogue. Firstly, it has a back that is capable of taking a dark slide. That means I can use film whereas many pinhole images are made on photographic paper. Secondly it has a laser drilled aperture, so small I can hardly see it (although you can buy them if you make your own camera) and what the regularity of the hole gives is greater, clearer detail.

Everything is blurred but everything is in focus. I adopted the pinhole as a method for In the Steps of Robert Pinnacle, a conceit set in historic spa towns, because of its lack of sharpness. It has a very beautiful, hazy aesthetic but this was not the chief reason it appealed. Realism is marked by sharpness, and the concepts that I worked with were that photography and history were both fictional. The tendency with a photograph is to look through it at the subject and forget that it is a photograph informed by viewpoint, intentions, and values. So the pinhole was just one way to amplify the issue of photography’s transparency. Another reason I liked pinhole technology was that when I was making a long exposure many people walked through the visual space. The lengthy time made sure they failed to register just like all those people in history who have failed to register because they are not deemed valuable enough. I made a piece of work about this called Persons of Substance. The central image is of the head of the statue of Sulis Minerva, a Roman goddess who presided over the temple in Bath. When Christianity swept into the country, the temple and baths were razed to the ground and the head of the statue was decapitated. Centuries later, workmen building Georgian Bath found the buried head. This discovery gave rise to a great deal of interest in the old Roman baths and they were eventually uncovered and rebuilt. So I think of history as a skin - many hidden things eventually rise to the surface becoming visible and with the potential for instigating change.

The first time I used a pinhole camera was for this commission but I have since used it for other residencies and a research project. I continue to make pinhole photographs of architecture and landscape to emphasise distance, perhaps aligning my images with a history of travel.

sky fort.jpg