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.
The concept goes back to the invention of the camera obscura (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 to an aircraft hanger – 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.