Through the Pin Hole – or who uses a camera like this?

Paul Mitchell FRPS: an appreciation by John Cogan

This follows Paul’s presentation, ‘Agfa to Zero’ to Durham Photographic Society 23rd April 2015

Digital is delightful but film is fundamental (and fun)! Retro is back. Granted, this was bound to happen. The more we feel we know about digital photography and the more we can do, the less we seem to be in control of the process. Just when you think you have it cracked along comes yet another version or an update of filters that will turn anything into something completely different. It is as if Photoshop is infectious; you are seduced into just one more tweak. For those of us who grew to photographic manhood/womanhood knowing that a red light district was somewhere in the bathroom where a sheet of old blackout material hid you from view, and Johnsons provided the necessary, we could face a negative knowing our choices were limited and, hopefully, safe. Our fear came from ruining the one and only negative that would compromise the printing and enlarging processes. There was always the danger that the piece of cotton wool constrained by the garden wire would dodge with a bit too much gusto. The cautionary tales that erupted from the deep recesses of older club members no longer apply. A mistake now seems to be easy to rectify.

But, recently, I have been witnessing a revival in the use of film. People intent upon producing a book or are aiming at an exhibition are buying pockets-full of rolls of 120 and dusting down their old medium format cameras. The clarity of the images and the power of reproduction has to be seen to be believed. Back in the 1960s when the images were often grainy and from 35mm 400 ASA film (ASA being the equivalent of ISO back in the day) we could forget the power of the Medium Format. It was all Nikon F2s and Olympus OM-1s, get out there and be grainy, dramatic and maybe you might just find your own Vanessa Redgrave (a Blow Up reference). Sneaking a look through Paul Mitchell’s Bronica view finder revealed its magic … the image was so crisp and almost 3D. My old Mamiya TLR was never so clear, nor are my current digital cameras.

Back to last night! From Agfa to Zero, a guided tour of revisionary photography. Revisionary? Yes, in so much as Paul rewrote the photo process and brought a film sensibility to what he photographs. There is little doubt that he comes from a very visual background and no wonder, he trained as a Graphic Designer. It is all there in the prints. Granted, he uses his computer and Photoshop to complete the process, but the wonder of the human eye is what he revealed to us on Thursday night.

Many people may by now realise I am a Cartier-Bresson acolyte. It is the process of constant observation and evaluation that fascinates me. Landscapes remain relatively still (though the lighting doesn’t) which taunts my kangaroo mind. Not so Paul; his mind employs one of those magical processes where the variables of light, shape and texture are combined to maximum utility. Take, for instance, the dunes at Walberswick as they build up against the fence. This exhibited a Paul Strand clarity coupled with a Stieglitz cloud equivalence. Paul had turned a simple scene into something more profound, a work of art that could rival those of Edward Seago. The Ridgeway photographs were Fay Godwin-like in context and situation but whereas her images were printed dark and lowering, imbuing each photograph with a sense of potential doom, Paul’s captured the light and spread it around all parts of the frame. You were freed from the medieval menace into a pilgrim’s joy.

It was only when he came to his pinhole photographs that the mood changed. And remarkably, Paul was the first (and so far only) to gain his Fellowship of the RPS with Pinhole photography. Yes, the pinhole image is limited by the very nature of the equipment but even when that was subdued; hinting at rain and worse, there was optimism. Many of these images were Peter Emerson-like in their textures and tones: the long, straight drainage channel and flat landscapes of East Anglia; the heavenward-pointing reed beds and wool-enriched churches. Emerson had abandoned surgery to follow his chosen path and Paul was revisiting those places in homage to that master of early environmental landscape photography; an exploration into the mind-set of an earlier age.

Where will pinhole photography go from here? Is it seen as a stand against the all-pervading dominance of digital photography; is it merely a new fad or something that can become a branch of the ever-expanding catalogue of photographic genres? That is hard to predict, but my guess is that the limitations imposed by the equipment will challenge the pinhole photographer to concentrate upon the subject and explore the scene rather than allow PhotoShop to dominate. Having said that I understand there are on-line workshops showing you how to convert your DSLR to a pinhole with the manipulation of a body cap, a piece of a drinks can and some black tape. I also believe that Holga are selling commercially produced pinhole adapters for DSLRs. Now, that could open up a whole new field of photography!

Did I enjoy Thursday evening? Strangely enough I did. Listening to someone who finds great beauty in simple scenes and the vitality of mono, appreciating the mechanical wizardry of an Agfa film camera, it was like being at a poetry recital and for that I thank everyone involved for arranging Paul Mitchell’s visit.

John Cogan ARPS

Pictured: Wales, Pinhole 1 by Paul Mitchell FRPS  


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