“I have a vague memory of a quote from Atget – something about how he didn’t want to exclude people from his photographs, but by the time he was ready, they were all gone. It’s a problem, catching spontaneity with slow tools. But sometimes, it works…”
Jeff McConnell (born 1967) is a photographer from the USA, currently based in a remote green part of New Jersey. He first carried an old rangefinder around for almost ten years, looked at books of Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson, and then studied at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Nowadays his great passion is pinhole photography.
“You know that feeling you get when you are out on the road and the wind catches the grass and blows it in waves? Or when you’re waiting to cross the street and all the people waiting on the other side look magical: the light turns them into monuments? I want to photograph that. Photographs can reveal a reality that people often don’t take the time to see – it’s worth looking.”
Interview with Jeff McConnell
Jeff, why did you become a photographer? And why pinhole?
I became a photographer when I realized that I would never stop looking, and trying to translate what I see into images. Pinhole came years later. Right before I started building pinhole cameras, I was using a small view camera. Working with pinhole feels about the same as using that view camera did. Both the aesthetic I get using pinhole cameras and the slow approach to making pictures they require fit well with the kinds of images I try to make.
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?
An artist/teacher friend of mine, who I admire, wrote that what artists do is notice things. My photography is a kind of a record of noticing. I like the visible duration of time that is possible in photography – and pinhole lends itself to that very well. Photographs can be or say so many things – mine (I hope) are simply about being here, noticing what is amazing, now.
Is there anything that pinhole photography has taught you about photography in general?
Humility! Since something is always left to chance. It runs against my personality type – I would much rather control everything. It’s nice to be reminded that that is not possible.
Can you recall any special moment shooting pictures?
I love it each and every time. Especially when – days later, after I get some film scanned – an image comes out that rhymes with the experience I remember.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I can’t pick just one:
Masao Yamamoto is a poet of singular objects. I love his idea that prints are to be carried around in one’s pocket – used, so to speak.
James Agee showed me the value of small detail.
Hiro is a master of invention, combining the unexpected, making magic.
Josef Sudek worked with what he knew, and saw it very deeply.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
Hiro, talking about what he learned from Alexey Brodovitch:
“When you look in your camera, if you see an image you have ever seen before, don’t click the shutter.”
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process of shooting pinhole images?
I have worked more often as a landscape photographer than in any other mode. Choosing the panoramic format and the slow method of pinhole photography reinforced this. Even if I am in the middle of a city, I see more the structure of the place, sometimes, than what the people are doing. It’s about paying attention, being tuned in to color and motion along with the physical environment. I have a vague memory of a quote from Atget – something about how he didn’t want to exclude people from his photographs, but by the time he was ready, they were all gone. It’s a problem, catching spontaneity with slow tools. But sometimes, it works…
What’s important in order to develop one’s own photographic language?
Make more work! Pay attention to what you are doing!
How do you manage things like exposure time etc. when shooting with a pinhole camera?
I used to do very simple film tests with each film I wanted to use, and then work from memory. Lately I’ve started using more cameras, which adds to my confusion. I was so happy when I found the Pinhole Assist app, which has become my crutch!
Can you tell a little bit about the process of developing your pictures?
Oh, I let the lab do the color. And now that I’ve started using black & white again, I do that myself. Tanks and reels. Good fun.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Everywhere. From music. From nature. From art or design where I can feel that the person who made it was onto something. Most of all, from paying attention, watching.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
For years I carried just one pinhole camera at a time, one of a series I built that use 120 film and make 6×12 negatives. I would often use a lens camera with 120 b/w film in it – the ones I have are mostly flea market finds and are very simple. Lately I’m experimenting again, building some new cameras and converting a few others. So I end up with a heavier bag. It’s a sickness.
A plug for my favorite tripod: Velbon Ultra Maxi-L. I love it. It’s small, light, strong, and doesn’t have any clunky latches. If you want a light but solid tripod, this is the one.
You build your own pinhole cameras. Can you explain the process a little bit and give some advice to someone who’d like to do the same?
“I see some pretty cool cameras out there that you can just buy. I’m waiting for one, from a guy named Elvis…”
I started building pinhole cameras in 1999, when I couldn’t find a camera that made the kind of photographs I had in mind. So I mocked up a camera with a curved film plane and tested it with ortho film. I chose the curved back partly to compromise between distortion and fall-off, and I set the focal length to minimize vignetting but keep a very wide view. Getting the cameras to be light tight was a problem, and I went through several different designs until I finally had one that didn’t require taping every time. I didn’t measure the pinholes – I just tried to make them as small as I could and perfectly round – so it’s a wonder the photos came out as well as they did. Now I am building cameras again (measuring the pinholes, this time.) I’ve been feeling limited by just one camera format. For inspiration I have been looking to Peter Olpe, whose book “Out of Focus” is a great resource.
My advice for building cameras? Just make one. See what you don’t like about it. Look online and see what everyone else is doing. Make another one. Repeat. That said, I see some pretty cool cameras out there that you can just buy. I’m waiting for one, from a guy named Elvis…
Which photographic film do you use and why?
What’s your favorite website about photography?
Has to be Twitter. Build your own filter, include a little of everything.
What photography book would you recommend?
“Silence” by John Cage. I don’t know of any photographs by John Cage, but reading this might help you see differently.
Which advice would you give to someone getting started with pinhole photography?
Come on in, the water’s fine.
More about pinhole photographer Jeff McConnell
If you’d like to read more about the subject of pinhole photography, you’ll enjoy the features about Gregor Servais (“Waiting For The Mermaid”) and “Experiments With A Pinhole Camera: Shooting Pinhole Images In Buenos Aires”.