These photographs peer at you through the mists of time. They feel like old dreams left out to ripen. They are mute houses, sepia clouds, faces with blurred features. In Bill Wittliff’s “The Church at Ranchos de Taos,” adobe walls ascend gleaming from a tunnel of shadows. In Michael Mideke’s “Trinity Site 10,” the site’s iconic black stone obelisk has its edges softened and base flanked by gauzy human forms among the desert grasses. In “Ancient Woman Circumambulating Stupa, Qinghai Province, China” by Nancy Spencer, a nebulous cronelike silhouette surges forward with the speed of Alice’s Red Queen and the resolve of the Grim Reaper.
With their indefinite lines and smoothed-away textures, such pinhole photographs hearken to a long-ago time of simpler technology. Made by rudimentary processes—just a light-tight container pierced by a tiny hole on one side and containing film—these old-timey photos exhibit enduring visual power that connects us to the past.
Except, in this case, none of that is true. Every image I’ve described was created in the 21st century (2000, 2004 and 2006 respectively). They and hundreds of other photos are found in Poetics of Light: Contemporary Pinhole Photography ($55; Museum of New Mexico Press). Authors Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer have assembled the collection, which spans 35 countries and over three decades, from the pages of their own Pinhole Journal. Thanks to their efforts, an art form nearly forgotten with the advent of lens-based modern photography has been injected with new life.
Because there’s something really special about pinhole photography. What it loses in precision is more than made up for with a serendipitous—nearly mystical—enigma. Joanna Turek, who penned one of the book’s two excellent essays, attributes this to the peculiar ability of the pinhole camera to look back at us: “It supplants the human as the center of the universe,” she writes.
Reading Poetics of Light is like being inside a museum. Everything—from its heavy white semigloss stock to the artfully unfinished edges of its book boards—speaks to the visual, tactile and aesthetic pleasures an art book can evoke. The sheer array within its pages is startling. Though all pinhole photographs seem to possess that amorphous mystery of light trapped amidst shadow, artists are ever pushing conceptual boundaries. For “Shot in a Head,” photographer Thomas Bachler placed a paper negative in a light-tight box and shot it with a pistol to make the aperture. The resulting image of a ghostlike man with a perforation at eye level seems to break the fourth wall. Bachler also experimented with becoming a pinhole camera himself by placing film in his mouth and using his lips to form the opening for light.
Poetics of Light comes to us in conjunction with a world-class exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum (113 Lincoln, Santa Fe) running through March 2015 with original photographs, pinhole cameras and interactive displays. For more about the book and the exhibit, visit nmhistorymuseum.org/