A Short History of Pinhole
Just like Christmas and Easter, World Pin hole day comes but once a year. On Sunday 28th April, Open Eye hosted a special event with Sean Halligan. Sean, from the Liverpool Pinhole Association, was at the gallery from 2-5pm with his extraordinary 36 exposure pin hole camera.
The idea of the pinhole camera came some 1000 years before the first camera was invented in the early 19th century. Although Artistotle was the first to talk about inverted images through pinholes, back in 400bc, the idea of the Camera Obscura as an invention, an object, was first mentioned in the ‘Book of Optics’, written by the Persian scientist Ibn al-Haytham in the 9th Century. His invention was simple. It was a tiny hole that led into a dark room, where by he lit candles outside, documenting the light that passed through the pin hole. This experiment has alone powered centuries of scientific thought. The pinhole process became a standard method for generations of physicists after Haytham. Isaac Newton, for example, used it to conduct his famous prism experiment in which he analysed white light into basic colours.
In the 15th Century, Leonardo da Vinci played a crucial part in developing the pinhole idea further. He first brought about the thought that, to make an image, you would need to seal light within a box. In his writings, he talks about how to focus imagery onto a transparent screen through a box, tracing it from the opposite side.
1839 was hailed as the year in which the official invention of ‘Photography’ happened - the lens from then on, almost rendered experimental pinhole photography obsolete. Traditional photography then was for the middle and upper classes and so throughout the 19th century, the pinhole phenomenon was popular amongst travellers and sailors. They were able to trace objects and landscapes from their journeys, transferring them to sketchbooks. These books became permanent records, souvenirs almost, just like a film negative.
The first image made using light sensitive paper and taken by a pinhole camera was in 1850 and over the last 160 years, schools of artists and photographers have become pioneers in this medium, showing us that a camera isn’t always necessary to make a photographic image. From Man Ray to Cordier, cameraless images honour modernism and the Bauhaus. They embody surrealism and the Avant Garde. More recently, through artists such as Fabian Miller, they are traditional, philosophical, and embody the rurality of the countryside.
In the 21st century, the age of the ‘snapshot’, it is interesting to find artists who continue to strip the elements of photography down to its purest forms, casting shadows on to light sensitive paper.