How To Shoot The Pinhole Images in Brady Art Gallery’s ‘Absence/Presence’

Co-curator and photographer Nancy Breslin, RES ’87, discusses exhibition and demos her pinhole camera.

Nancy Breslin's pinhole photography is featured in the Brady Art Gallery's "Absence/Presence" show. (William Atkins/GW Today)
November 11, 2015
A deserted amusement park, a lonely bowling alley and an abandoned prison cell are just some of the images that haunt viewers in the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery’s latest show, “Absence/Presence.”
Although the show deals with vacant spaces, its theme is more about the traces that humans have left behind.
When the Brady Art Gallery’s curators began preparations for the show, they thought of photographs they had seen from alumna and artist Nancy Breslin, RES ’87. Dr. Breslin shoots with a pinhole camera—a simplified device with a tiny aperture and no lens—to capture quiet, everyday scenes. The camera transforms the people in her photos into fuzzy gray wisps—an eerie and slightly distorted aesthetic that the Brady Gallery knew would add a new layer of mystery to the show. 
“Some of the magic of my approach to the camera is that you can have something busy and chaotic, and you can mute it by taking the people away,” Dr. Breslin said. 
Dr. Breslin also served as a co-curator of the show and suggested several of the 14 artists on view. She wanted to incorporate the work of photographer Lisa Tyson Ennis, who uses long exposures in her contemplative images to emphasize lighting in desolate environments. Dr. Breslin also was drawn to the solemn photographs of shuttered prison cells taken by Lee Saloutos. Both artists concretize the exhibition’s theme of how humans affect the spaces they once inhabited. 
“The idea is a projective one, and it allows viewers to enter the space and explore the scene themselves,” she said.
Dr. Breslin, who teaches continuing education classes in photography at the Corcoran College of the Arts and Design, often brings in her curious wooden pinhole cameras and shows them to students. She explains that because a pinhole camera has no lens, it produces images with an infinite depth of field. The result is that everything in the photo stays in focus, but moving subjects appear blurry and ghostlike.
Below, she shows George Washington Today reporter Julyssa Lopez how she used the camera to create the spookily beautiful images you will find in “Absence/Presence” before its closing on Nov. 20.   


1. Dr. Breslin uses wooden pinhole cameras handcrafted in Hong Kong. Making a DIY version of the camera is actually quite easy—Dr. Breslin has made her own out of cookie tins and photo paper boxes. She uses rolls of medium-format 120 film, which she has frequently developed herself. 



2. Dr. Breslin finds a place to rest the camera for a prolonged period of time. The pin-sized aperture means that the camera requires a lengthy exposure time—anywhere from two seconds to two hours. That’s why situations where a subject is sitting for a long time, like during dinner or lunch, make ideal photography sessions for Dr. Breslin.  


3. Dr. Breslin uses a light meter to gauge how long she will need to expose an image. The device measures the amount of light in a room and, knowing her camera’s f-stop number, allows her to determine the exposure time.  Lighting in the photo below requires two minutes of exposure. She opens the shutter manually and blocks the aperture after two minutes to avoid overexposure. 



4. Dr. Breslin shoots several rolls of film in a month, more when traveling.  They are then processed and she scans each negative.  The results include images with a supernatural feel. 
You can read more about Dr. Breslin in this fall’s edition GW Magazine or follow her pinhole blog here.