Through pinhole cameras, photographer Justin Quinnell finds new ways to view world

January 30, 2014

The faster the photography world burrows into more megapixels and bigger sensors, the faster photographer Justin Quinnell runs the opposite direction. Quinnell has been experimenting for years with pinhole photography, the simplest kind, making cameras that shoot from the inside of the mouth and others that expose a single image for years on end.

This month marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of photography, when William Henry Fox Talbot presented his technique of “photogenic drawing” at a Royal Society meeting.

Even now, Quinnell says, there are many people who wish to return to a simpler time of photography by trying analog processes. “Pinhole seems to be finding a new following in people who want to discover the world rather than pay for instant answers,” he says.

Many of his long-exposure photos — executing a single photo over up to six months — are made from rudimentary materials such as beer cans. The optimal height placement for these is slightly higher than the reach of “a drunk person on another drunk person’s shoulders,” he says. Quinnell intended to make a five-year exposure of the construction of Southmead Hospital in Bristol, England, but guards thought his cameras were a security threat and threw them away.

Luckily, it wasn’t mistaken for a bomb like in an incident last year. Near the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, a pinhole camera zip-tied to the Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge was “detonated” by a Virginia State Police bomb squad in Roanoke.

The longest shot he has made took five years. The camera is still exposing, but at that age, the cameras become increasingly susceptible to mold.

Another of Quinnell’s favorite cameras is the “Smileycam,” which is about the size of a tube of lipstick placed inside his mouth. Quinnell even attempted to make a Smileycam photo the moment his child was born, but the photo didn’t expose properly.

Although it would be easy to dismiss Quinnell’s photography as kitschy, there is a profoundly humanistic undercurrent to it. His long exposures don’t simply uncover patterns we can’t see (like in his photo “View from my bike”), but often tie the exposure length to an experience.

In “A day in the life,” the camera is affixed to a record playing the Beatles song of the same name for the duration of the last chord. The photo becomes immersive, tying the visual elements of color and composition to an imagined aural experience of hearing the last note on a record die amid light record scratches.

Although experimental photography can mean faster shutter speeds and Golbergian rigs, Quinnell’s work is proof that simple technology can also reveal new ways of seeing the world.

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