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Story and photos
By Rosanne Olson
Special to The Seattle Times

During the past four years, I have traveled in Europe, Mexico and the United States, taking pictures with my pinhole camera, which is essentially a box with a tiny pinhole to let in light.

This rather simple system has replaced the relatively compact trappings of my usual travel-photography work - cameras, lenses, light meters and a lightweight tripod.

Now my suitcase weighs in at about 100 pounds, the same as I do. It contains (aside from the camera): a sturdy tripod, Polaroid large-format film, baggies for water, chemicals for processing, two buckets for washing negatives, a clothesline and some clothespins.

This travel photography is far less convenient. Yet, like Alice in Wonderland, I find that I have tumbled through the pinhole into an unexpected kind of travel adventure.

Paris, France

On a cool October afternoon at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, I shuffle through layers of ochre-colored fall leaves, admiring the empty green chairs positioned as if still engaged in the conversations of their occupants. A lovely photograph. I pull my tripod out of its zippered shoulder bag and begin to set up my pinhole camera.

I glance at the sky, which is a wintry pre-dusk gray, and estimate a 10-minute exposure. I insert a sheet of 4x5 Polaroid film into the back of the camera, set the timer on my watch and begin the wait.

As I stand there, people swaddled for a winter stroll glance at this odd-looking lensless box. Some step closer to ask what I am doing. I explain in my juvenile French about the pinhole camera and how it works. I show them a Polaroid. Tres bien!

Later, a uniformed gendarme steps up and talks to me. He gestures toward my tripod and indicates that it is time to go.

Oh yes, I say. I know the park closes in 30 minutes. I will leave by then.

No, he says. I need permission to use a tripod. But the office is closed and, sadly, I will be leaving Paris in the morning.

I glance longingly down the row of barren trees where I had just set up my camera, the light sifting delicately onto a pair of chairs.

Pinhole photography can be like a demanding child whose needs seem to come before anyone else's. After film is exposed and schlepped back to the hotel in water-filled plastic bags, I spend evenings on my knees in the bathroom. Here I carefully tend to the processing and cleaning of the big Polaroid negatives, trying to avoid the nicks and scratches that sometimes occur in spite of my best efforts. After the washing is done, I hang the negatives on a clothesline strung from shower to door. The negatives look like black-and-white laundry dripping water on the floor. My husband and I can finally go out to dinner.

Bien, I nod. But I know that even if I were to come back with a permission slip, it is never possible to find the same magic twice.

Slowly, very slowly, I pack my notes and my water-filled baggies of negatives from the day's photographs, hoping my pace will allow for the completion of the 12-minute exposure already under way. I can see out of the corner of my eye that the gendarme is watching.

Finally, I close the pinhole and pull out the Polaroid film, hoping the image will be okay. A minute later, I carefully slide the fragile negative into a plastic bag, sealing it tight. I smile at the gendarme and leave, just as the park closes for the night.

Provence, France

One beautiful day in June, I set out to explore the Abbaye du Thoronet, a monastery in Provence.

Eventually I find a scene I want to photograph: the long corridor of the cloister where monks once walked in prayer. Sunlight floods through the arches and glows off the Romanesque ceiling.

It is easy to imagine dozens of monks in woolen robes, treading these halls over the centuries. It is easy to imagine that their spirits still linger.

Halfway into the third 10-minute exposure, I hear Gregorian chants floating from the church behind me. How nice that there is music, I think, as I stand to look for the source.

I look in the church, but find no music. Walking away from my camera as it continues the long exposure, I look down the hallway. Nothing. I look in the large room on the other side of the cloister. Nothing. Perhaps it was someone's Walkman. And then again, perhaps it was something emanating from the building, ancient voices, that one hears if one sits there for a long time taking pictures.

Teotitlan del Valle, Mexico

But here in the courtyard I find remnants of the town's recent Christmas parade. Placards with Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe, Coca-Cola bottles, other parade bric-a-brac, all much more interesting to me than the candles.

I pantomime to the caretaker, a young man with a poorly repaired cleft lip, that I would like to take pictures. It's hard to describe photography with this odd camera, but he nods his permission.

I spend the next hour there, with him. He helps me get more water for my baggies. He nods his approval over the Polaroids. A couple of rag-tag kids ride in on their bicycles to watch. It's so quiet because I know no Spanish, and there are no words except for the common language of the Polaroids. When I am finished, I give the young man a couple of the pictures. He smiles at me with his lopsided smile and carries them gently away.

In pinhole photography, the subjects are, by necessity, things that hold still: architecture, ruins, landscapes. During the long exposures, people passing through the scene disappear entirely, or create a ghostly effect if they stand still long enough. There is a certain Zen-like meditation involved in waiting for the exposures to complete. During that time I sometimes get an eerie sense of the past.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Our taxi driver takes us on a road trip from San Miguel to a tiny town of no apparent name, looking for interesting churches that I might photograph.

He stops at a quaint chapel behind a locked gate and runs down the road to get the person with the key - a bricklayer building a wall. In a few minutes, the bricklayer's wife arrives to unlock the gate.

Inside, a tiny burial ground off to the right seems more photogenic than the chapel. I set up the camera, my back up against the tiny courtyard wall.

Soon I have an audience of two small brothers. They are curious, so I show them a Polaroid, and ask them (by demonstrating) if they would like to be in one of the photos. Fortunately, the exposures are just a few seconds in the mid-day sun. I take a picture and give them the Polaroid, saving the negative in a baggie of water.

As I pack up my gear and walk toward the car, I am suddenly surrounded by a dozen children, probably the total population of children in this town. They want their photo taken, too.

Pinhole photographs have an antique quality to them that works well with churches and ruins. The small aperture produces an infinite depth of field, so everything appears in focus. But the focus itself is less refined than what one would get with modern lenses. The rougher appearance resembles the quality of early photographic prints.

There is a chapel I want to see. It is surrounded by water - similar to the famous St. Michel on the coast of France. I think it will look incredible with a pinhole camera, so we - my husband, our friends, the taxi driver and I - head out of town toward the site.

Veering off the main highway, we drive down a bumpy dirt road, past a few houses with chickens and goats, car windows rolled up against the dust.

We stop about a mile from the chapel. Everyone helps with something. Water bottles, baggies, tripod, camera, backpack. We head down the trail that leads to what looks like a lake.

I can see the chapel from the road, a tiny finger poking out of a lake. Closer, I can see that the chapel is surrounded by water, but that the water is surrounded by a cracked lakebed. By now, our group of seven has been winnowed down to just me and my husband.

We set off with camera equipment across the crusted dirt toward the chapel. About 30 yards out, I take a step and sink past my ankles in thick, sucking muck.

Trying to keep my balance, I plunge my other foot in the mire. Panicked that I am in quicksand, I scramble to get out. My tennis shoes and black pants are caked to the knees with thick gooey mud. There is no way we will get to the church this way. We backtrack closer to the edge, looking for firmer footing.

In the distance, near the church, I can see Mexican farmers with horses, working the fields. It seems that there is no way to get there from this direction. Perhaps by boat, but not this time.

The sun is getting low. So we pack up the gear and head back uphill, where our friends patiently wait.

We gather for a group snapshot, then walk back up the trail to the van, accompanied by a small boy herding his dusty goats and two dogs chasing rabbits.

It was worth a try. It always is, even if, in the end, the photograph is not there.

The pinhole camera led us to a place we would have never seen, and to people we would have never met - except in pursuit of a picture. It's like tumbling and letting go and finding yourself, like Alice, in a wonderland you never imagined.

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