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  • By Lara Wheeler

Cher MacNeill: Pinhole photography

Pinhole photography seems to contravene the photographic trend of speed and instant gratification achieved through digital technology. Instead, pinhole photography inherently necessitates a slow and decided resolve.

The elemental photographic technology, whereby light enters an aperture the size of a pin and etches an image onto a film or paper emulsion, requires much patience. Since images can take anywhere from seconds to hours to capture, depending on available light, the pinhole format is conducive to condensing the passage of time onto a single frame.

Using a camera that is essentially a wooden box with brass fittings, Cher MacNeill uses her pinhole camera and creativity to produce images that are influenced by the medium and the artist herself. Without a viewfinder, she is able only to approximate the composition. Without a shutter speed, MacNeill says she can only estimate the exposure: “You have only your imagination to envision how the final image will turn out. There’s a little bit of guesswork in every step of the process, and you have to take your time with it. All combined, it becomes a bit meditative.”

MacNeill finds the pinhole process to be intuitive. Her 20 years working in film editing familiarized her with similar aesthetic elements that she incorporates into her pinhole photography. MacNeill says she feels drawn to the methodical and considered process of pinhole photography: “As someone coming from film, I was initially intrigued with the idea that making pinholes was like condensing a movie onto a single frame of film. I like to describe it as a cinematic crunch: 24 seconds on a frame instead of 24 frames per second [the frame rate of 35 mm motion picture film].”

Throughout her career in film, MacNeill says she always maintained her interest in photography but to varying degrees. Having studied fine art in a joint University of Toronto and Sheridan College program, she first learned about pinhole photography while at Sheridan. MacNeill says it wasn’t until much later (in 2004) that she received direct experience capturing images with a pinhole camera: “After I was given a Zero [Image] 2000 camera I shot a few rolls that winter and in the spring I enrolled in a weekend workshop taught by Dianne Bos at Toronto’s Gallery 44.” The workshop taught her how to transform cardboard boxes and coffee tins into pinhole cameras. MacNeill says she enjoyed constructing her own cameras: “I really liked being able to produce photographic images from such rudimentary, non-technical materials.”

Shortly after receiving her 6 x 6 cm pinhole camera, MacNeill began traveling more extensively. She says photography was becoming her main focus: “Once I discovered pinhole photography, it became my best reason to travel.” Before long, MacNeill bought a second Zero Image camera. This time she opted for a 6 x 12 panoramic pinhole. MacNeill says the wider format was more conducive to the landscapes she photographs while traveling: “I like to photograph large, architectural objects of a sculptural nature in landscapes.”

In addition to photographing static objects, MacNeill wants to challenge herself to integrate both people and movement in her photography. She states that stationary objects are easier to photograph than people because of the lengthy exposures necessary: “I think photographing people in motion is more challenging but also more rewarding.” MacNeill feels that adding the element of movement evokes feelings of moodiness or mystery: “People often tell me that some of my images feel spooky.”

While the potential results of pinhole photography can be unique and evocative, MacNeill says that the possible rewards come with perseverance: “Your expectations are sometimes exceeded and sometimes they are underwhelmed. You have to keep shooting for the moon so to speak. It’s not for everyone.” But for MacNeill, her venture into pinhole photography has been a rewarding experience. She says “Good things come to those who wait.”

We featured Cher MacNeill and this article in our Spring 2009 issue: Photography Revisited – Issue 25. If you’re looking for alternative method photography inspiration, you can find it HERE.

Check out what Cher MacNeill has been up to lately at:

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