Scene & Heard

Pinhole cameras: Thinking inside the box

If you are an art enthusiast who frequents the Emerald Art Center in Springfield,  New Zone Gallery or PhotoZone events in Eugene, you will have seen the work of local photographer Gene Tonry – perhaps without even knowing it. 

Back in the 1970s when Tonry was a college instructor, he was allowed to audit courses for free. He tried watercolors, which wasn’t a match. Then he tried darkroom photography and found “something magical about watching an image emerge under the dim safelight, out of the chemical soup.” 

Tonry built a makeshift darkroom and hasn’t been without a darkroom in his home since. He seldom leaves home without a camera since falling in love with the artform. Before moving to Oregon, Tonry took classes with fashion photographer Victor Steinhart and George Tice in New York City. 

When Photography at Oregon published a catalog for its 50th anniversary Exhibit in 2016, Tonry was the perfect candidate to write the biographical notes due to his interest in the history of photography.

One form of photography Tonry specializes in is the antique art of pinhole cameras. This is one of the oldest forms of photography, and the inspiration for the modern camera. 

Unlike traditional photographs that are taken by a camera through a lens, which is recorded on a negative and transferred to photographic paper, these are photographs taken with a simple box. Light from outside passes into the box through a tiny hole, where the scene is recorded on the opposite side, directly onto photographic paper. 

This process results in “camera obscura,” an effect that inverts the image, something remedied by a lens on modern cameras. 

Tonry’s photo, titled Meadow. PHOTO PROVIDED

The phenomenon of camera obscura was recorded as early as 500 BCE in Chinese writings, by the ancient Greeks, and in Arabic culture. Early on, camera obscuras were used to safely watch solar eclipses. Later in the 17th Century, it was used as a drawing aid. Think of it as the first projector, casting an image outside a box or room onto the opposite wall, which could then be traced onto paper or canvas. 

One of the first pinhole cameras, using chemicals on the paper to make the image permanent, was documented by a Scottish inventor, David Brewster, in 1856.

“I have long admired the elemental, dreamy quality of fine pinhole prints, and truth be told, I think there’s something about the anticipation, guesswork, and surprise that’s part of shooting with film that I missed after switching to digital,” Tonry said.

Tonry’s photo, titled Sweet Creek. PHOTO PROVIDED

Tonry outlines three main differences between pinhole cameras and modern photography methods: 

The images taken are “rectilinear;” there is no “fisheye” effect.

The small aperture creates an image that is in focus from near to far, meaning there is no blurring of background or foreground as some lenses produce when focusing on a specific area. 

The images are softened at the edges. “This can create a dramatic and even mystical aura which is the signature effect of a pinhole print,” he said. “In some cameras, the film can be moved farther back from the pinhole, resulting in a ‘telephoto’ image which reduces the effect.”

When asked about advice he has for young artists, Tonry says, “Don’t obsess about gear. Today, just about any moderately priced digital camera can take wonderful photos. And if your interest is in film photography, there is a darkroom group with facilities in our area.” 

Tonry encourages reading to help add perspectives on techniques. For a deeper perspective on the influence of art and photography, he recommends Photography Changes Everything, a collection of essays edited by Marvin Heiferman.

New artists are often afraid to share their work, but Tonry recommends to show others because “You’ll be surprised at the positive reactions you’ll get. Showing your work completes the creative circle and leads to artistic growth and self-understanding.



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