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Take 5 Interview
The Take 5 Interview series is a continuation of featuring selected pinhole artists from around the planet. Each artist is asked a set of five questions that will shed light on their persona, their portfolio, and their creative take on this intriguing art form called pinhole photography. All questions are derived by Brian J. Krummel and answered by the respective artist in their own words.

August 16th, 2010 : Seán Duggan
Seán Duggan is a fine art photographer, author, educator and an Adobe Certified Photoshop Expert with extensive experience in both the traditional and digital darkroom. He is the co-author of Real World Digital Photography, 3rd Edition (Peachpit Press, October 2010), The Creative Digital Darkroom (O'Reilly, 2008), Photoshop Artistry (New Riders, 2006), and Real World Digital Photography, 2nd Edition (Peachpit Press, 2004), and he writes articles for the Digital Photography column in Layers Magazine. He has been helping photographers master digital darkroom techniques for over 10 years. He teaches online Imaging for Photographers classes at San Francisco's Academy of Art University as well as leading workshops at venues across the country. Pinhole cameras have been a part of his creative work since 2000. His web site can be seen at and additional pinhole work can be viewed on his Flickr stream.

When did you first get interested in pinhole photography and how long have you been practicing this art form? List any creative influences that have shaped your own personal style.

I had dabbled with it now and then in the 1990s, but more as a "let's try this and see if anything comes out" approach. It was nothing very focused (no pun intended). In 2000 I modified one of my old Holga cameras that had a busted shutter and turned it into a pinhole. That was really the beginnings of using pinhole cameras regularly for my creative photographic work.

Seán Duggan
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Copyright © 2000 SeÁn Duggan
"Chips and Salsa with Frieda Kahlo" (2000). Taken with a "Pin-Holga", a Holga toy camera that had been modified with a pinhole. Color tinting added digitally.

I continued working with different types of pinhole cameras for a number of years. These were mostly modified Holgas using 120 roll film, which was a choice based on the size of the negative and also the convenience of roll film.

Copyright © 2004 SeÁn Duggan
"Dresden Lifeboat" (2004).

In 2006 I purchased a ZeroImage 6x9 multi-format camera and that has been my primary camera for the past 4 years. I had coveted those cameras for a while and when I finally held one in my hands, I had to have it! My first test roll in this camera resulted in the first image in my on ongoing "Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin" series that I have been working on for four years now.

Copyright © 2007 SeÁn Duggan
"The Umbrella" (2007)

Copyright © 2008 SeÁn Duggan
"The Gears" (2008)

In terms of creative influences, I am drawn to images, both those of other photographers and in my own work, that have a strong narrative quality, so I find that the photographers who have influenced me the most also create images with a definite sense of story and narrative. I also appreciate the use of symbols and metaphor in photographs.

Keith Carter was an early influence and remains one of my favorite photographers to this day. I love his visual style and the subjects that he chooses to photograph. His images also have that strong sense of narrative that I find intriguing, as well as a hint of mystery that is very compelling. I find his use of blur and selective focus helps to reinforce the sense of mystery and enigma in many of his images.

Another photographer whose photographs have a strong narrative quality is Cig Harvey. I really appreciate her images for their great use of color and composition, as well as the intriguing scenes that she portrays, often using herself as the subject.

Finally, in terms of set up and staged images, which is a big part of my Artifacts series, I really love the work of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, especially the book "The Architect's Brother". I never get tired of looking at those images. They have a grand, mythic quality and I love the intricate sets and props that they made to portray the scenes in those images.

Which characteristics of pinhole are most attractive to you and applicable to your work?

The main thing about pinhole that I love is that it is an entirely different photographic experience from using a modern digital camera. Pinhole is the ultimate point and shoot, because the only controls you have are where you point it and how long you expose it. It is photography distilled down to an incredibly simple form.

But while it is definitely a more basic and simple way of creating photographs, it also comes with it's own set of challenges. The need to be on a tripod for long exposure times is the most obvious. But with some cameras, like the ZeroImage, there may not even be a viewfinder, so composing the image depends a lot on experience with a particular camera and familiarity with its angle of view, as well as a little old fashioned luck. I enjoy the process of working through the different challenges that I encounter when making pinhole photographs.

Copyright © 2010 SeÁn Duggan
Working on the "Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin" series in a Florida cypress swamp. After I had been at this location for an hour and a half, I noticed an alligator nearby. Fortunately he stayed in his deep pool and left me alone while I photographed for another hour.

In terms of the actual characteristics of the pinhole image, I love the slightly soft, yet nearly infinite depth of field. Life and especially memory, is not always sharp and clearly defined, and the pinhole camera is well suited for capturing images that speak to such intangibles as memory, dreams, and emotion. I also find the blur of movement to be an intriguing element in these photographs, especially when moving water is in the scene. When you know that you will have motion blur in an image, and when that motion blur is of an unpredictable nature, as when people or animals are moving through the shot, there is an element of surprise and the unexpected that awaits you when the film is processed.

Which new techniques would you like to experiment within the year?

I'm not really planning on exploring new techniques as much as I am new projects and new ways of using the pinhole camera. Most of my work so far with the ZeroImage camera has been horizontal since the format of those 6x9 negs works is an obvious fit for horizontal subjects. But lately I have been experimenting more with using it in the vertical orientation. So far I have gotten a few very good images using this approach and I want to do more exploring with a vertical view.

I also plan to spend more time snowshoeing into the backcountry during the winter months. I live in the Sierras not far from Donner Summit, so access to snowy mountain wilderness is quite close. I started shooting there last winter and I really like that environment, even though it comes with its own set of challenges. The winter landscape is a landscape transformed, especially in the high country and I'm interested in making more images in the magical winter world.

Apart from working with vertical views and exploring the possibilities of a winter landscapes series, the main thing I am looking forward to is simply having more time to spend with the many pinhole negatives that I have not yet scanned. I have shot a lot in the past year, both with pinhole and Diana and Holga toy cameras, but updating my book "Real World Digital Photography" (along with co-authors Katrin Eismann and Tim Grey) as well as my online classes at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, has taken up much of whatever free time came my way.

What creative tools and techniques do you use, such as any specific cameras, film, development, or printing processes?

The main camera I use at the moment is the ZeroImage 6x9 camera. The actual aspect ratio of the exposed area can be changed by moving two wooden dividers into different slots inside the camera, allowing me to choose between 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7 or 6x9 formats. For most of my work with this camera I use it at 6x9.

I primarily use black & white film, typically 400 ISO, though if I am going to be in particularly bright conditions such as in the snow or in the desert, then I will use 100 ISO film to keep the exposure times no shorter that one or two seconds.. For one of my pinhole series with this camera, I shot Kodacolor II 100 ISO film that was 25 years out of date. I rated it at 25 to compensate for the loss in sensitivity due to age and was surprised at how well it turned out. That resulted in a series called "Waikiki" shot over the course of three days on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. When the three rolls of expired film were shot, the series was finished.

Copyright © 2007 SeÁn Duggan
"Waikiki 23"(2007). Taken with a ZeroImage pinhole camera and Kodacolor II film that had expired in 1982.
My pinhole images are a hybrid of traditional film photography and digital darkroom techniques. Once the negatives are developed they are scanned as 16-bit files for maximum tonal quality and large enough to make 20x30 prints. Further interpretive processing is done in Photoshop (previously CS4 and now CS5) using adjustment layers and layer masks for "dodging & burning". All adjustments are applied so that they are nondestructive and can be easily tweaked and fine-tuned during the "development" process. The irregular sepia toning that I apply to some of my images is all done using adjustment layers and layer masks to control where the brown tone is added to the image. Once they are converted to RGB and I start adding adjustment layers the file sizes can get pretty big. It's not uncommon to have master image files that tip the scale at more than 1 gigabyte. Prints are made on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper on Epson photo inkjet printers.

Copyright © 2009 SeÁn Duggan
"The Parking Meter" (2009). Top: The original, unaltered scan. Bottom: The finished image after using adjustment layers in Photoshop to "dodge and burn" and add irregular sepia toning.
Why is pinhole photography important to you?

Even though I come from a film and traditional darkroom background, for the past 15 years my professional work has been centered on digital imaging, both in terms of imaging software as well as hardware such as scanners, printers and digital cameras. Though my pinhole photography does not offer nearly as much convenience or technical control as digital photography, I still appreciate that connection to the film world where my photographic journey began. In an age when cameras offer an amazing degree of technical control and are, in fact, small photographic computers, I find the stripped-down-to-the-bare-essentials simplicity of pinhole cameras to be very refreshing.

As a photographer I see the camera as a tool that I use to make images. Different cameras offer different aesthetic characteristics in the image and different experiences using them. For a sculptor, creating a statue out of bronze or stone are very different processes that result in different types of work. The choice to work in one medium or another may be driven by what the artist wants the final piece to look like, or simply by the experience the artist has when using those materials. It is the same with photography.

I enjoy making images using many types of cameras, from pinhole and plastic toy cameras, to digital point-and-shoots and professional digital SLRs. Different cameras satisfy different aspects of my creativity. Making images with a small wooden box with no lens and no viewfinder is a very different experience from using a modern digital SLR. Not better or worse, just different. And from a creative perspective, I appreciate that difference, as well as the technical and artistic challenges that often come with it. I feel more in touch with the early pioneers of photography when I am out in a wild and beautiful landscape using a rudimentary wooden camera and counting out the seconds of a long exposure (not that this is in any way a determining factor for making good images, but I appreciate that historical thread). I also like the slow pace and the more meditative quality of making images with a pinhole camera. The contemplative and deliberate nature of capturing a scene with a small magic box that sees the world through a tiny window, is a combination of science, alchemy and ritual that I find very satisfying and intriguing.

Copyright © 2010 SeÁn Duggan
"The Ship's Wheel" (2010)