A mere pinhole offers a window on the world

Carlo Harneit is 12 and a fledgling photographer after recently completing a “photo camp” workshop in the Summer Arts Institute at McColl Center for Visual Art in uptown.

The striking thing about Carlo's photos (he's into self-portraiture), and other students' photos, is they're not taken with a state-of-the-art digital camera, or even an old film camera.

Rather, they're made with a pinhole camera. The cameras are handmade, like some that may have been used by early Greeks and Romans. The name is taken from the tiny hole that serves as a lens.

The technology is simple: Yards of black tape render an ordinary oatmeal container lightproof. A piece of pie tin, taped over a hole in the box, is pierced by a needle. The resulting pinhole acts as a crude lens, projecting a dim image of the outside world on a piece of photographic paper inside the box.

A piece of tape acts as a shutter, covering the pinhole and keeping the inside of the camera dark. There's no viewfinder, so the student photographers must guess what the camera sees. That's part of the fun and mystery, according to instructor Lisa Holder.

“I'm going back to the basics, teaching them to make and shoot with a pinhole camera,” Holder said.

Ella Andrews, 11, has an eye for the architecture of the McColl Center. Her image of the stone shell of the former church rectory captures the empty windows. Through those windows, she can see the bustle of the street.

Holder, who also teaches photography at Myers Park High, spreads out the previous day's paper negatives on a table. “What do you think happened there? Is it under- or overexposed?” The four students who make up the class discuss what might have happened and how to improve the results.

Holder says that's exactly what she wants. “They're making hypotheses based on the light, aperture and shutter speed. So they're having to figure out their own problems and experiment a lot.”

Emily Boyd, 11, shot something familiar: the center's parking lot. Because of the curve in the paper inside the camera, the horizon has a topsy-turvy feel to it, like a reflection in a fun-house mirror. In the golden glow of the darkroom safelights, the students load their cameras, placing the shiny side of the photo paper toward the pinhole and carefully slipping on the tops to seal the camera.

The students go to work, squinting at first in the midday sun after the dimness of the darkroom. Carlo sprawls atop a sculpture in the center's courtyard. Holder opens the shutter, counting off a 10-second exposure. Gabriella Russell, 9, holds her camera at arm's length, and a classmate opens the shutter. Once back in the darkroom, she watches a ghostly self-portrait emerge in the developer tray.

The students develop their negatives, exchange notes and react to each other's work. The oatmeal boxes are reloaded with fresh paper, and they head back out into the afternoon's heat to shoot.

Holder watches them go and smiles.

“This is exciting, seeing how they react to the first photographs they make,” she says. “ I'm very impressed with how fast they're picking it up. It's very impressive.”