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Pinholes and the arts

Scientists weren't the only folks making use of pinholes throughout history. They were used extensively by painters as viewing devices. Variations on the pinhole obscura concept were employed by artists to make perspective drawings. Leonardo da Vinci's one point perspective drawings, for example, are based on the use of a pinhole as a viewing instrument. Albrecht Durer, the great Northern Renaissance painter, probably learned about using pinholes to create perspectives directly from da Vinci's work. It could be argued that one point perspective, or pinhole perspective, has dominated the history of art in western civilization from the renaissance to the modern period.

The development of photography itself has had a strong influence on the history of art. With photography's capacity for documentary use, traditional art was free to diverge from realism into various abstract movements. Two of these new movements, surrealism and impressionism, warrant special mention as they have, in turn, profoundly influenced photography and share common ground with pinhole images.


Through the last half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, photographers struggled to gain acceptance of their work as "art." There are many examples of photographers affecting the styles of the new (and old) movements in art. Impressionism was particularly interesting to photographers.

Pinhole use was common at the turn of century. A particular strength of the pinhole camera was its ability to produce an impressionistic image. British photographer, George Davison's impressionistic pinhole image, "The Onion Field", won the highest award at the 1890 Annual Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London. Originally called "The Old Farmstead," this picture continues to be regarded as an outstanding example of landscape photography. Davison, an outspoken advocate of photography as art, said, "It would certainly do most photographers good to produce a few pinhole pictures." and ".... given a subject with really strong and poetic possibilities, sharpness and detail will go a long way to render it commonplace." Pinhole photography was never a compelling force in impressionism, but it did dovetail nicely with its esthetics.

George Davison's pinhole image entitled
George Davison's pinhole image entitled "The Onion Field," with permission from George Eastman House.


Surrealism, founded in 1924 by Andre Breton and others, drew heavily on photography. Susan Sontag, in her book, "On Photography," basically asserts that the nature of photography is surrealism in the sense that photographs ultimately become images of the physiological landscape of mind, memory and the subconscious.

In surrealism, the subconcious terrain of the dream world is the significant reality. The esthetic of the pinhole image is inherently dreamy. It has a certain enigmatic logic that is striking to see, but difficult to fathom. Considering the large number of pinhole images generated during the last 25 years, and their subject matter, it is apparent that the use of pinholes is essentially surrealist. Although pinhole photography is not a dominant element of surrealism, it can be viewed as a handy tool to describe landscapes of memory and subconscious realities in short, surrealistic visions.


When you use a pinhole camera that you've made with your own hands to create an image with artistic merit, consider the enjoyment you derive to be part of a tradition that dates back thousands of years and that is alive and well today.

Early attitudes about the nature of art put great stock in the ability of the artist to be in control of his or her materials, design, concepts and composition. One of the original objections to photography as art centered on the photographer's lack of control over materials and composition.

A newer understanding of art has taken hold, one that recognizes the artistic effort as a process - not necessarily one that can or should be precisely controlled. In this modern frame of reference, the actual tools and materials artists work with are secondary to the strength of vision and the experience of creating. The tool can be a stick of charcoal, a palette of acrylic paints, a digital device or a host of other materials. A work may combine several disciplines and mixed materials. It can involve a highly refined craft or be entirely crude. It doesn't necessarily matter as long as the tools, materials and venue suit the vision of the work.

Pinholers tend to respect the idea of craft more than is typical of artists in our contemporary era. Your grasp and application of basic science and mathematics will affect image quality. Even then, in pinhole photography, you don't have absolute control. You participate in a process, like stepping into a river. Go with it, and use your instincts and sense of artistry to find the way.

In this modern context, a pinhole camera is as good an artistic device as any other, which helps to explain why pinhole images have found their way into many of the world's great art collections.