Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

Yesterday was a rather dismal WPPD here in England with heavy rain and light levels more associated with mid-Winter than mid-Spring, but it is always enjoyable to participate knowing that thousands of others are doing the same, some in groups, some alone. I have been mulling over a few ideas for weeks now on attempting to depict time and impermanence through a new set of images – I must admit I often wish I was drawn to more straightforward subjects! – and WPPD seemed a good time to start.

I was aiming to play around with the movement of a pen across paper, with the text becoming fainter as the writing slowly advanced. The first challenge proved to be estimating the speed at which to write. Also I needed to decide when to stop writing but let the exposure run in order to retain some faint but legible impression of the words written towards the end of the piece.

I opted to include a clock to add to the feel of passing time, knowing that the hour hand would remain sharp while the minute hand would smear through the minutes of the exposure. What I didn’t anticipate was how physically difficult it is to write so slowly. Before more than two minutes had elapsed the muscles in my back and hand were tense and painful to such an extent the my handwriting became shaky. Having to fit myself around the tripod made things awkward, of course, but I was taken aback at how exhausting the apparently undemanding task of writing twelve lines could be. To make the process more arduous, the desperately low light intensity stretch the exposure way beyond what I thought would be necessary.

A final complication presented itself in the film stock used – Polaroid type 55 which expired in 1998, already slow at ISO 25 and probably slowed further by its age. (Certainly, the contrast and the smoothness of the developer of this beautiful but ancient film seems to have deteriorated since I last exposed a sheet a few months ago.) I attempted three exposures: the first was ruined completely when the developer sachet failed to burst in processing leaving a completely blank negative; the second worked but was poorly aligned and the transition time of the hand moving was too slow; the third 15 minute exposure gave an acceptable but imperfect printable negative (though barely, due to the very low contrast). I had by now run out of time and daylight was fading so I retreated to the darkroom to make a print.

In between washes, I helped my daughter Emma make her own pinhole image using a body cap on a digital SLR. After a bit of technical help I left her to her own devices and she came back a few minutes later, delighted with what she had come up with.

By now I was losing enthusiasm for the battle with old materials in difficult conditions. When I looked at her superb photograph next to mine, I did feel slightly uncomfortable to observe that I had made things far too difficult for myself by misjudging the prevailing conditions and sticking pig-headedly to the “traditional” route when some quick digital work would have made the day far more fun. I am not done with the idea yet but it will wait for a fresh surge of enthusiasm and good light.

New Polaroid Type 55

It is exciting and encouraging to see that type 55 instant film may once more be with us. The New 55 Project run by Bob Crowley is making great strides towards reproducing this sadly defunct film medium. What is more, initial tests are showing that it makes both a good print and an equally good negative. How many times have I sacrificed one for the other in the past and now having one’s cake and eating is a distinct possibility!

More information and latest news at

Totemic images

Icy Pool

Crown Graphic, Xenar 135mm, Polaroid 55 4×5

Rock in ice, River Monnow

Crown Graphic, Symmar 210mm, Polaroid 55 4×5

I felt so drawn to this frozen eddy of the River Monnow at the turn of the year. I kept returning, looking and watching and finally made two exposures from my last remaining box of Polaroid 55. Several days later in the darkroom, the initial pull and excitement of the scene simply evaporated and I wondered over and over why I had found the place, the atmosphere and the composition so stimulating. This post-exposure disappointment, this disorientation, is very familiar to me. I have endless boxes of negatives which languish unprinted, or maybe printed once or twice. Few of the negatives are badly exposed, all are close to the what I visualised at the time of exposure. Why then, I have always puzzled, should there be such a gap between the excitement of the moment of creation (the discovery) – and the emotion and momentum which moves one to propel raw material into a finished work (the revelation)?

The experience of the few days spent on the Welsh border and the following periods of uncertainty and frustration in the darkroom, which at the time left me non-plussed, have today, quite unexpectedly, blossomed into understanding and rediscovery of that time. I have reviewed both prints several times during the last months and felt in equal measure excited and confused by them. Each time I thought how strange it was not to understand my own work. Perhaps by virtue of having looked and looked, I suddenly twigged: the excitement was from knowing, though dumbly at the time, that here was a scene totemic of life at that moment; the disappointment came from not being able to give voice to this knowing.

These two images suddenly snapped into focus for me when I understood the eerie correspondences between the last eighteen months of shifting, emotionally cracked and blurred experience and the fundamental uncertainty of the key elements of the photographs: an eddy in a river, frozen but thawing; a rock apparently floating on water; underwater cracks more tree-like than the trees reflected on the surface; a confusion of focus; a tangle of shapes which now seems to follow a definite composition, now appears just tangled without understandable form. In a moment, I undertook the imaginative leap from seeing the images as a mediocre confusion of tones and lines to regarding them as a striking totem of life. Whether they are reflective of what had passed or predictive of what was to come is impossible to say. What is indisputable, and thrilling, is the illumination they have given me and the sense of understanding I feel now that they are no longer shrouded in confusion. Life seems to be changing for the better.

Teasel – Polaroid 55

Sometimes it is enjoyable to take a lensed camera out as a contrast to the slowness of pinhole photography. I found this print on a shelf in my darkroom four years after exposing it and only then realised its aesthetic qualities, qualities hidden to me at the time. Although the exposure time may have been quicker, the production time certainly was not.

Spring sunshine by the River Stour, Warwickshire (Polaroid 55 print, 150mm lens on Shen Hao 4×5).

Emma in hat

Emma in hat

I can’t quite put my finger on the attraction of Polaroid borders but I love them with a passion. I suppose they are a reminder that the image really is an instantaneous snapshot of a fleeting moment and all the more valuable for this temporariness. Most of the great Polaroid photographs I have seen are in fact portraits: the perfect marriage of medium and message.

Emma with dandelion clock

Emma with dandelion clock

Before launching into some pinhole work on a very precious box of Polaroid type 55, I thought I should test a couple of sheets which expired in 2002. To its credit it seems to have lost no film speed and still displays that wonderful tonality. The scan here is a rather poor rendition of a stunningly beautiful print on Ilford Multigrade Fibre-based paper. Only recently I felt the digital prints were surpassing the quality I could expect from silver prints but this gorgeous contact print has made me reconsider. In all I got so carried away with my test I exposed 6 sheets, of which 4 are keepers. The remaining 14 sheets are either for pinhole or maybe some more portraits on the old Speed Graphic.