Chicago Pinholes

I few weekends ago, I had one full day — a luxury! — in Chicago to take pinhole pictures. A chilly, November, get-the-longjohns-out kind of day. I was out early to catch the morning light coming over the lake for some west-facing shots, and was out til there was no more light for my cameras. Despite the cold, I couldn’t have asked for a better day for pinhole photography: full sun and no wind. According to my phone, I walked about 12 miles that day, criss-crossing downtown looking for good subjects, returning every now and then to the hotel to load up more photo paper into the four cameras I carried around - three in a big backpack and one always loaded on my tripod.

Many of my favorite photos I’ve taken have been out in desert ghost towns. There I can take my time framing my subject. Rarely does something get in the way. I’ve been slow to come around to urban photography. I’ve taken urban photos to be sure, but in my head I’m always thinking that there are too many things in the way of my subject — signs, wires, cars. Get them out of there! I’m starting — slowly — to embrace these as part of the urban story. There is no downtown Chicago without cars. Or street signs. Or people.

This shot surprised me

Based on some online scouting before the trip, I knew I wanted a shot of the Chicago Theater. I actually took two. With the second, I waited for the right time of day, the sun behind me. I took my time. I had to wait for cars to move; I even closed the shutter mid-shot to “erase” a truck that parked in the middle of the frame, then reopened the shutter to continue the shot. It ended up being a 5 minute exposure that took 20 minutes to shoot. And didn’t turn out that great.

For the first one, I climbed the stairs up to an L station, balanced my tripod treacherously on three different stairs and leaned my camera through an opening. Not 30 seconds later, the sun came around the edge of a building. I thought for sure this was a wasted shot, that the sun had blinded the pinhole.

Instead of being blinded, the pinhole caught the sun’s visible beams cast down to light up the theater. The camera caught glints off cars as squiggles in the lower right as they moved through a window of sunlight. The perspective somehow makes the stationary truck look like a little toy. And in the bottom left corner, a single person waits for a bus.

This is not the kind of thing that happens in desert ghost town scenes. There are many stories in shots of old abandoned buildings. But with that small truck and that single person waiting, this photo becomes part of a narrative. Those elements give it motion and propel it into some future that you the observer can’t help but start to imagine. Without those elements, this would be a nice photo of the theater, with the sun rays adding an extra dimension. But with those elements, the photo asks you to consider what happens next.

This might be my favorite of the 10 photos I took that day.
Yes, 10 photos total. This is slowww photography.

Stairway to … ?

Late Light



One feature of pinhole cameras is that they have infinite depth of field. This is tempered by less light getting to the camera from far subjects, but you can see in this photo a far-off building rises into the sky. I’d spotted this alley the night before and dropped a pin on my map to find it the next day.

Here’s the last photo I took that day, with the light wearing thin — at 3:40pm, the horizontal shadows of the awnings tell the story of November light on the east side of a time zone.

If you look closely, some ghost cars appear near the bottom of the photo. There was no avoiding them in the 6+ minute exposure

Besides getting to spend an entire day photographing the city, some of my favorite parts were the spontaneous moments with other people who recognized that I was shooting with pinhole cameras.

A large burly guy in a crowd with his own 35mm camera was crossing a bridge in the opposite direction as me, with my box camera and tripod over my shoulder. Walking by, he asked simply, “Pinhole?” I nodded. “Rock on,” he said as we passed each other.

Later, a passenger in a car, as he drove past me setting up a shot at an intersection, shouted out his window, “Nice pinhole camera!”

A walking tour photography group with their digital cameras eagerly looped over their necks stared at me as I got close. The leader of the group asked, “Film?” “Paper!” I said as I weaved through them. The dozen of them all nodded with approval.

Finally a fellow from Germany saw me working on a shot and asked if it was a “hole pin” camera, and we both had a good laugh when I corrected him. We talked a little about how I work and how they’re made. He thanked me for explaining, then walked off. Ten minutes later, I was waiting still for a truck to move out of my shot when he came back to ask if I was on Instagram and found me on his app.

These fun interactions are also part of urban photography.