I made this photograph in December 2004, just a few months after I’d moved here to Ypsilanti. It’s a pinhole image of the Huron River running through Riverside Park in Ypsi, taken from the Tridge, the pedestrian walkway that runs under the Cross Street bridge.
I’d been working for science toy company in Ann Arbor, and one of the things we had kicking around in an old store cupboard was a pinhole camera made from a quart-sized paint can, a sample that had never been used. I ended up buying it and taking it home, and then promptly forgot all about it. It sat in my office for months, collecting dust, waiting quietly.
Winter in Michigan is a bittersweet season for photography. On the one hand, there’s some of the most beautiful light, spectacular weather and incredible skies, and those bleak, spare landscapes that I like so much. On the other hand, it’s cold and wet, you can go weeks without seeing the sun, and the simple act of taking a photo becomes an enormous challenge. One particularly miserable Michigan morning, with frozen rain lashing and the icy wind sweeping up the river, I was feeling the itch to go out and photograph. I didn’t want to risk taking a nice camera out into the weather, and one of my cheap plastic jobbies wouldn’t have been up to the low light levels. At that time, I didn’t really know anything about pinhole photography, but for some reason remembered the paint can camera and decided this would be a good time to try it out. I figured that it’s waterproof, and that the long exposure times would mean I could capture what little light there was. So I loaded it up with some expired Kodak paper I’d picked up cheap from the bargain bucket at the photo store, and set out for the park behind my house.
I had no real idea about pinhole exposure times, I just knew they were long. The instructions that came with the camera suggested three or four minutes for a cloudy day, and as it was so dark and gloomy I decided to add an extra minute for luck. I got the bridge, put the camera down on the rail, pointed it at the river, removed the “shutter”, and then stood around freezing in the stinging rain while the camera did its thing. Then I traipsed back home and cracked open the developer.
Nothing came out. Just a blank piece of underexposed paper. But instead of doing the sensible thing and giving up, I headed back out into the elements and had another go, this time with a longer exposure. A whole extra minute of standing there on a bridge, in the sleet, babysitting a paint can. But this time, sure enough, when I got back home and developed the paper, I came out with this image.
I was amazed. I wasn’t really expecting to get anything at all, never mind anything that looked so soft and beautiful and strange. Check out that glassy water! I loved it. And of course I was hooked. Since then I’ve taken many hundreds of pinhole photographs, with all sorts of cameras, some that I’ve made myself or hacked from other cameras, and many more with my trusty paint can. In fact I’ve become rather obsessed with pinhole photography, it can do that to you, you know. And even though I’ve made pinhole photographs that are far superior to this one – better technically and more interesting aesthetically – I’m still extremely fond of this photo, a little bit of unexpected magic that I managed to conjure up on a freezing December morning in Ypsilanti.
And thanks to Matt for doing such a wonderful job as Michigan in Pictures’ first featured Michigan photographer!