“I think that the pinhole effects (such as blurry friends) allow viewers to project themselves into the setting.”
Nancy Breslin (born in 1957) is a photographer from the USA currently based in Delaware. Her great passion is pinhole photography. Nancy Breslin studied photography at “The George Washington University” and the “University of Delaware”.
“For the past ten years my main photographic tool has been a pinhole camera, and I have found it equally adept at capturing ghost-like portraits (my “Pinhole Diary” series”), landscapes (amusement parks), still lives (the bathroom interiors of my “Amenities” project) and abstractions (“Galaxies” represents artifacts of the aperture’s diffraction). Most of my work is a visual form of journaling, and the gentle distortions of pinhole exposure capture scenes unlike what I actually saw, but memory also distorts the past.”
Interview with Nancy Breslin
Nancy, why did you become a photographer? And why pinhole?
I was working as a physician and needed a change, and thought of pursuing a degree in painting. I began taking art classes at “The George Washington University” (where I was on the faculty) and after taking a photography class I knew that is what I wanted to do. I worked with lensed cameras throughout grad school and for a few years after that, and then in 2002 I impulsively bought a Zero 2000 camera from the freestyle website. I started using it, fell in love with pinhole photography, and it has been in my bag for over 10 years now.
Is there anything in particular that you want to say with your pictures? And in other words: What is it that a photograph can say at all?
I use my camera as a journal, documenting my restaurant meals, hotels I visit, and things that I find striking visually (amusement rides, water, etc.). Pinhole documentation is odd in that it doesn’t capture experiences the way my eyes did (e.g. people at meals with me become very blurry during the long exposures), and yet our memories distort the past anyway. As to what my photos say to others, who didn’t share these particular moments, I think that the pinhole effects (such as blurry friends) allow viewers to project themselves into the setting.
Is there anything that pinhole photography has taught you about photography in general?
It has taught me to toss away what I thought of as rules of working, such as carefully framing with the viewfinder (I have no viewfinder), the need to shoot lots and edit well (I can’t “shoot lots” when some exposures take many minutes), and my preference for avoiding tripods (they limit spontaneity and vantage points, but I’ll get a fuzzy mess without one).
You write a blog called “A Pinhole Diary Of Eating” in which you present a long-term project of photographing meals. Can you explain what it is about?
“I like how the pinhole camera transforms a common, repetitive behavior (eating with others) into hundreds of somewhat ambiguous, square, black and white documents about my life.”
The first photo I took with my Zero Image camera was of a friend at lunch in a restaurant. I really liked the result – my friend was ghostly while the table and room were sharply captured. I have been doing this for over 10 years now, and the project is social (both friends and strangers will ask about my camera), I find the results are often surprising and beautiful (I try for tables by windows), and I like how the pinhole camera transforms a common, repetitive behavior (eating with others) into hundreds of somewhat ambiguous, square, black and white documents about my life.
Can you recall any special moment shooting pictures?
What usually strikes me as most special is beautiful light quality. It might be window light on someone’s face, or a building lit by late afternoon sun when the sky is dark from a coming storm.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I’ve been inspired by a number of photographers, for different reasons. I really love the work of Gertrude Kasebier and, while she was working with a lensed camera, pinhole photography in some ways resembles the soft pictorialist look. Deborah Turbeville’s fashion photography could be edgy but also had a softness. I was more recently introduced to the images of Julie Blackmon, and enjoy how her everyday scenes become playfully chaotic. The Parke Harrison’s are also favorites, with their dystopian whimsy.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
“If I saw something in my viewfinder that looked familiar to me, I would do something to shake it up.”
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process of shooting pinhole images?
In my pinhole work I limit my vocabulary, by working in black and white and in square format. My work carries little explicit emotion – in part because there are no distinct faces to read or with whom to identify. The creative process itself works differently for different projects. The meals and hotels, being series, have established “rules”, so while I use judgment, for instance, in where to place my camera, I don’t have to decide whether to take the shot or not, and my light meter determines exposure time. Since my pinhole camera is always with me, at other times I am merely engaged by something visually that I think would be well interpreted with a pinhole camera.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic language?
When I want to say something, I see what tools I have, and if I can’t say it I will learn new techniques (such as moving from lensed cameras to pinhole, then adding toy cameras and video).
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
Technically and conceptually the passage of time is very important. When I work in series (such as 10 years of meals) time passes obviously, as it does during the long exposure of a typical pinhole shot.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Sometimes I have no idea what the source is – a concept might just pop into my head. Sometimes visits to galleries or museums will stimulate something, for instance I might see work printed on fabric and that then stimulates me to pursue a project on fabric that has been in the back of my mind. Often the world around me is the inspiration. I will see something and be drawn to it and photograph it, and may not be sure at the time what project will emerge.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I probably turn to alternativephotography.com more than any other site for information. I post to fotolog, flickr and tumblr, and it is stimulating to see the great work from artists I follow at those sites.
What photography book would you recommend?
I wouldn’t recommend a particular book, but do suggest reading about the history of photography. People have been tackling the technical and artistic challenges of the medium for over a hundred and fifty years, and there is lots to be learned from that.
Which advice would you give to someone getting started with pinhole photography?
While a camera you make yourself from an oatmeal box is fun, if you want to work seriously in this way I would suggest a camera that shoots film. My Zero 2000 is light weight and I get 12 shots per roll – no need to run to the darkroom each time. I would also recommend using a light meter, rather than the “guess and check” method, which can be very frustrating. Almost 100% of the hundreds of pinhole negatives I have are printable. The exceptions are mostly from low light interiors when I just don’t have the time for an adequate exposure (which might be 2 hours or more).
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: Are you a film purist?
A: Absolutely not. All of my negatives are scanned and I print some work on silver gelatin paper but increasingly turn to digital printing. Some projects go back and forth between traditional and digital methods, such as using scanned imagery to make digital negatives to print as cyanotypes or in gum bichromate. I think an artist should use the tools that will express a particular idea in the best way, and I feel fortunate to live in a time when so many options are available.
More about pinhole photographer Nancy Breslin