Pinhole photography is based, above all, on simplicity. It is a simplicity that strips away the barrier of technology that can stand between the photographer and his or her vision.
Done right it is eloquent photography.
Perhaps because this kind of shooting lends itself to contemplative scenes, often shot with available light during long exposures on a tripod, I find the resultant images have a serene, spiritual quality that I love to linger over.
My friend Oi Veerasarn -- whose pinhole photography and other work will be shown in two places in coming weeks -- was as masterful a pinhole photographer as I ever have seen. It is no accident that he also was one of the most gentle people I ever knew.
He could astound you with what he accomplished with the barest equipment. (Readers may recall the gorgeously simple nude photography featured in his 1997 book, "Eye to I," and reviewed here last year.)
"Oi prided himself on using a minimum of fancy equipment," his life partner Lisa McQuail wrote. "For his masterful nudes, Oi exclusively used a 50mm lens for his `Hassy' [Hasselblad medium format camera] and a single ceiling-mounted light. Oi made his backdrops himself, dyeing and re-dyeing the simple cotton cloths until they were works of art in themselves." Again, simplicity; again, eloquence.
Veerasarn could lift my spirits on the lousiest day with his wide smile and his boundless energy. He could make me laugh at even the lamest of his jokes because he'd be laughing so hard himself before the punch line. He knew the best Thai restaurants in town, too. Oi Veerasarn knew a lot of things -- except how to live long.
Veerasarn died in June of a massive heart attack at age 45. "To Buddhists, Oi's short life is a sign that he was too good for this world," McQuail wrote in a touching biographical profile. The fact that he died suddenly, without suffering, also made his passing special.
"His faith in Buddhism promises him a swift rebirth as a superior being," McQuail said. It may not be rebirth, but Veerasarn's voice is still on his answering machine. I find that comforting.
An exhibition of Veerasarn's pinhole work is at the Black & White Custom Lab in Arlington and will be on display through Nov. 15. In two weeks, the Washington Center for Photography will host a month-long show of Veerasarn's nude photography, and later this month, Gallaudet University will host a daylong workshop called "Oi Veerasarn Pinhole Photography Day."
It was fitting that when Veerasarn began to shoot with a pinhole camera, he did so from the bottom up -- with, as McQuail recalled, "five dollars worth of cardboard, plastic, gaffer's tape and film."
"In the past year," McQuail said, "he also adapted several old 2 cameras, took them completely apart and removed the lenses. And rebuilt them into working pinhole cameras."
To me, the most interesting technical aspect of pinhole photography is the fact that pinhole images tend to be surprisingly sharp, even with the absence of optics. Because what little light reaches the film enters through a tiny pinhole (that is, a hole literally made with a pin or similar pointed object), it is comparatively distortion-free, unbent by an expensive lens to a precise point of focus. Thus, while the overall picture is never "tack sharp" in the classic sense, the overall image appears comparatively sharp foreground to background.
Artistically, this creates a pleasant tension between soft and sharp that produces an image that is at once technically sophisticated and technically naive.
A fair description of Veerasarn, I think.
In its current newsletter, the Washington Center for Photography devotes the entire issue to Veerasarn and accompanies his photographs with reminiscences and tributes from friends and colleagues.
The most eloquent tribute comes from lab technician Dave Rockwell. "Of course, the world may hardly note [Veerasarn's] life or passing; but I believe against all evidence that the ripples sent out by the lives of thousands of amazing people like him do not simply fade into the bland ocean of our species' existence, but form over the centuries a harmonic wave that ever so gradually improves the whole."
"I mean this not in any mystic way," Rockwell, says, "I simply mean that when a person radiates warmth from an open heart, the emanation is not wasted, but will be passed on from each of us to the next. Nothing is wasted."
OI VEERASARN: VIGNETTES OF A JOURNEY -- Pinhole Photographs, 1996-99 -- Through Nov. 15 at Black & White Custom Lab, 1916 Wilson Blvd., Suite 201, Arlington. 703/525-1922.
OI VEERASARN: BOUNDARIES/NUDES -- Oct. 15 through Nov. 13 at Washington Center for Photography, 406 Seventh St. NW. 202/737-0406.