“There are two different ways of viewing photography,” says Joshua Meier, gesturing at his recently-hung exhibit in the Gallery Saintonge. “There’s capturing the instantaneous moment, the split second, the moment that’s fleeting, but with this kind of stuff it’s capturing a longer period of time, extending it, letting time slow down a little bit.”
“And yet you’re still capturing it all,” Meier continues. “That’s the cool thing about pinhole photography. You can draw things out, show motion, give a feeling of lengthened time in photographs. I prefer that. It forces me to become a little bit more introspective, and it takes a little longer to gain what’s going on by looking at it. You have to look a little deeper.”
Meier’s show at Saintonge, I’ve Heard It Said, consists of 15 silver gelatin prints of Polaroid images, many of them layered multiple exposures, that were captured using an optical princ-iple understood by Greek and Chinese philosophers as far back as the fifth century B.C. Because objects reflect light in all directions, light reflected from an object through a pinhole-sized aperture produces an inverted image on the other side. The rays from the top of the object create the bottom part of the image and vice versa. The first pinhole photographs were probably made by Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster in the 1850s, and by the 1890s pinhole cameras had achieved roughly the same level of popularity that disposable cameras enjoy today.
After peaking in popularity around the turn of the 20th century, the technique fell out of vogue and was nearly forgotten for several decades until it was rediscovered by a handful of European and American photographers working independently of one another in the 1960s. Pinhole photography made a minor comeback in the ’70s, when a number of articles began appearing in prestigious photo magazines and photographer Phil Simkin conducted a month-long project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art using 15,000 hand-assembled and pre-loaded pinhole cameras. Museum visitors made their own images, which were developed in the museum darkroom and put on display.
At about the same time, teachers also began to rediscover the educational value of pinhole camera projects in the classroom.
Joshua Meier, in fact, remembers making them out of oatmeal boxes in fifth grade. For the images in I’ve Heard It Said, he used both homemade cameras and a store-bought version with its aperture precision-drilled—using a laser, he suspects—through a thin sheet of copper shim. The store-bought camera makes sharper images, Meier explains, but it’s also partly the guerilla aspect of building one’s own camera that contributes to what he calls the “freeing experience” of pinhole photography.
“If I want a new camera, I basically build it right around the Polaroid holder,” he says. “It might look like some weird construction or invention, and not like a camera at all, but it makes images.
Anything you can make light-tight, you can make a camera out of and produce images.”
Pinhole cameras can be taped-up cracker boxes with a square of film inside or sophisticated contraptions that can expose a whole roll frame by frame. Round containers such as oatmeal boxes, gallon paint cans and even 35 mm film canisters distort images against a concave film plane, and cameras with two or more pinholes create shifting, obscured images. The tiny aperture affords practically infinite depth of field, using exposure times measured in minutes instead of fractions of seconds.
Pinhole cameras can also be built to take photographic paper, which produces a negative image, as well as sheet and standard film that can be used to make bigger prints. Meier prefers to use four-inch-by-five-inch Polaroid film because it produces both a positive and a negative image. Shooting on his sheltered front porch using only available light, he made the images in I’ve Heard It Said using single exposures of four to four and a half minutes or two or three exposures adding up to the same amount of time. After exposing the film, Meier peels away the layer of plastic retaining the negative image and examines the positive. If he likes it, he preserves the plastic in a Tupperware container filled with water until he can stabilize the image with darkroom chemistry and print it like a negative. If he doesn’t like it, he chucks it and starts over.
The resulting prints, toned in tea to produce an aged affect, don’t seem to belong to any particular time. They dislodge you from the present without giving you any particular era to go to except an uncertain memory of the past. Unevenly-spread chemistry on the original Polaroid negative produces additional artifacts on each print, and the multiple exposures further suggest a dreamlike state with elements drifting in and out as you move closer to and farther away from each print.
“The entire show is dealing with words and how we use words,” Meier explains. “That’s part of the reason behind the layered effect and the multiple exposures. Words can be very ambiguous. They have set definitions, but at the same time there are more definitions to words than what we perceive. And each person defines words differently. A sentence that means one thing to one person can mean something totally different to another.”
“And there are the feelings and emotions that go along with words,” he continues, mentioning that the meanings some people have attached to some images in his show would never have occurred to him. “I try to create an environment where I can kind of guide them in a general direction, but after that it’s up to them to find the emotional attachment to a photograph from their own experience.”