I was actually searching on Google for a lens. Following my curiosity – I had no idea what a pinhole was – that link sent me on a journey back to the origins of photography.
After many years of experimenting – turning old cameras and cardboard boxes into pinhole cameras – I’m still intrigued that a picture can be captured so simply – almost magical. But I’m not alone. Each year, on the last Sunday of April, thousands of pinhole photographers from over 75 countries – linked by this delightful image-making technique – share their experiences by taking a picture for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day - external link.
The concept goes back to the invention of the camera obscura - external link (in Latin, camera means ‘vaulted chamber or room’). Even Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci commented on the principle. Today’s pinhole photos pay tribute to the inventors – offering a creative and serendipitous way to capture the world now saturated by instant gratification and perfection.
Compared to everyday photographs, pinhole photos – taken with just about any container, from a matchbox - external link to an aircraft hanger - external link – have uniqueness in their simplicity, interesting perspectives and unlimited depth of field. Because you can’t see the photo you’re taking, pinhole photography helps make you see the world in a new way, relying on your imagination and gut feel. But that means experimenting – getting a feel for your camera and exposure times. Pinhole Day encourages you to get out there and practice this ‘art’.
Each year, I try to go somewhere different; to be inspired by new surroundings. For Pinhole Day 2016, I ended up at the Voortrekker Monument (inaugurated in 1949) on the outskirts of Pretoria.
I wondered what was inside this enormous structure. Such a strange piece of architecture: simple in design, oddly proportioned, squat, symmetrical, monolithic, muted. The outside is clad in rough-cut granite with clean lines – reminding me of the pride and grit of South Africa’s Boer forefathers. I first walked around the monument to photograph it from different angles – Boer statues molded into its corners.
Venturing inside, I was surprised. It was just a big empty space. The finishes are in stark contrast to the outside: curved lines, polished marble, echoes, reflections. The empty space is equally imposing though – like a cathedral. It smelt stale. Dilapidated displays, faded paint: echoes of a bygone era. The lighting was mostly natural – leaking in from the panes of yellow-tinted glass between the massive arched windows with angled tracery. The most famous part of the monument – difficult to photograph because of the weak lighting – is a relief sculpture of Boer figurines in various poses and settings around the perimeter. Then I saw a potential pinhole photo.
After a quick calculation – my pinhole camera needing a 17 minute exposure in the low lighting – I set it up. Trying to be furtive, I ducked behind a balustrade wall to take the photo – my tiny tripod hugging the marble floor. (I'm often thwarted by security guards, eager to stop me from taking a simple pinhole photo – upsetting my fun and enthusiasm – that I make an effort to rather avoid confrontation.) Then I was ready to explore further.
I climbed one of the spiral staircases to look down into the ‘Hall of Heroes’ from the viewing gallery above. The monument has been designed in such a way that on 16 December (Day of Reconciliation) each year, light shines through a hole in the roof projected down onto a marble slab below – an engineering and architectural feat in itself. Though I’m not that terrified of heights, I found comfort in rather hanging my camera over the top balustrade edge than looking down – using auto focus to take ‘any’ photo.
The Voortrekker Monument, steeped in history, provided an interesting place to explore and many photographic opportunities. Trying to choose a single photo from my excellent results for Pinhole Day reminded me of why I – and many other enthusiasts – love this type of photography.
Why not try it for yourself? The results are often surprising.