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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.

December 11th, 2009 : Olaf Ben Gudbjarts
My name is Olaf Ben Gudbjarts, born in Iceland and live now in Paris and work as a receptionist in a hotel. I developed my first film when I was around 12 years old and I have always been fascinated with the image. That led me to art school where I graduated in painting and art history.

Paris is an ideal place to live. It has a long history of photography and is also close to other major cities in Europe by train which makes it easy to go for a weekend on a photo trip. I have been to most of the European countries, Asia and the Middle East.


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.
There is no direct creative influence in my photographic work other than the general history of photography and photographers. I do like the work of some older generation photographers like Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, and Nadar.

I knew about the pinhole technique for a long time before I decided to build my own camera— due to my general interest for history of photography and it's beginning (especially my interest in the so-called alternative processes).

Olaf Ben Gudbjarts
olafben@free.fr
Follow me on Flickr
I think it must have been an article by Jon Grepstad and Philip Greenspun that I found on the web in 1999 that kindled my interest for the pinhole camera even further and I decided to try it. I made my first tests in 2002 and gradually got into pinhole photography as I mastered making the pinhole, the box, and understood the optimum size for each format according to focal length.

My first tests were mixed: all out of focus, pinhole was too small or too big, affected by light leaks, underexposed or overexposed. In short, all the errors that one can make in pinhole photography. But that is also the best way to learn, even if a bad result sometimes punches out the enthusiasm for continuing. I learned alone, and built my pinhole camera alone. Creating in visual arts is often a lonely business! One needs a lot of private space to think and concentrate, while in public I try to be as invisible as possible. Even if it's doomed beforehand when you are setting up a "funny box" and a big black tripod. To complicate my life, I'm into large format pinhole. The result of the contact print is just so amazing to me.

My first pinhole box did not resemble any pinhole camera that one could find on the market. I built the box around a 4" x 5" Sinar back with a ground-glass, not that I wanted to see something on the ground-glass but to frame the photo beforehand. I use the back just to make it easier to load and reload the camera with sheet film frames and I wanted something that would last outdoors, even in rain. That is why I did not make my pinhole camera out of a tin can or a shoebox, although I will try out the circular tin can one day.

My second pinhole camera looked like the Zero Image 4" x 5" which is a direct influence of having seen one like that. I found the design practical and compact, so I made one for myself. One day I plan to buy a Zero Image camera, from that company because their products are masterfully made. I have now just finished a 5" x 7" pinhole camera with a Linhof 5" x 7" back and I am in the process of building a 8" x 10" pinhole camera at the moment. The design is similar to my first pinhole camera, that is, just a box around a graflock back with a ground-glass or around a sheet film frame. The design does not come from anywhere, it's the function of the camera itself that creates the design and the form of itself. I tend to be practical, the names of my cameras are the size of the pinhole. They do not have fancy paint jobs or sleek designs; it's the quality or outcome of the photo itself that is my final interest.
Which characteristics of pinhole are most attractive to you and applicable to your work?
I was attracted to the pinhole technique because it was like traveling back into time, to the very beginning of modern photography. It's like going to the source itself, making the box yourself, and working with negatives or paper that are to be contact printed. No enlarger as the pinhole suffers a big loss of its quality if enlarged, and there where no enlargers in the past. The negatives and photographic paper where exposed in frames in direct sunlight to get a print. So one can say that the pinhole eliminated the enlargers from my photographic work. It's also about control. When you make your own camera, you choose the format yourself and you have 100% control. When you are using procedures like cyanotype, calotype and even glass plate negatives, the whole process of creating a photo becomes 100% from 0% when using commercial films and paper. Pinhole is pushing me in the direction of cyanotypes and even making my own glass plate negatives. It's not easy, but that's why it's fun and interesting. Realizing a great photo after all the hard work is a great feeling.

What I like also is the sort of artistic or elastic feeling about pinhole photography; like painting: open to many manipulations, distortions, format size, movement and the error or accidental factor that sometimes creates a great photo. That is why it appeals so much more to me than direct photography with a purchased pre-programmed digital or film camera with a auto-focus zoom lens where the user just more or less has nothing to do than to push a button.

As I often say, pinhole photography is about freedom: freedom to create and control the outcome or the result yourself.
 

Copyright © 2009 olaf ben gudbjarts
Past and present
Young students in front of the St. GeneviÈve. For generations, students of the University of Sorbonne have been gathering on the small square of St. GeneviÈve between classes to study and discuss together.
Which new techniques would you like to experiment within the year?
As I describe above, I am hoping to be able to experiment with the cyanotype. John Herschel invented it in 1842 and I am a big fan of his inventions. The next step would be the creation of my own glass plate negative to use in my pinhole cameras. I can control the size of the photo itself and the shape. I may stick with the square format, but some custom made panorama pinhole images are also a big possibility with the glass negative. I have a collection of old glass negatives and they are beautiful and in great shape even if over 100 years old. I guess I never quite recovered from the effect when I saw for the first time a big glass plate negative in a flea market here in Paris. Making the glass negative also opens up another creative ground and that is the emulsion itself and the different effects one can get with various light sensitive emulsion to coat the glass negative with.
What creative tools and techniques do you use, such as any specific cameras, film, development, or printing processes?
I do not have any favorite camera. I realized long time ago that it's not the camera that matters, but what type of photo or idea of photo one has in his head. I chose which medium I use based on that type of idea. I am even not against digital photography. I see it simply as a complementary tool or medium that opens different possibilities.

I stick with analog photography for it's quality, film, grain, developing process, and large format negatives. A photo in an exhibition for me has to be enlarged or a contact print, not a ink jet print from a digital file. I use all the variety of developers from different manufacturers, Kodak, Ilford, and others. I tend to use what is available and I prefer powder developers and fixers over liquid ones, because of storage and that they are easier to travel with and then just mix once I am in some hotel bathroom, cellar, attic, tent, or a cave.

The pinhole photos I make are essentially contact prints and the cameras I use are the ones I make myself. I am into large format, since it yields better prints and quality. I use all sorts of films, Kodak, Ilford, Bergger, Foma, Efke. I have not yet made a pinhole photo with photographic paper as a medium. I will try it one day, since I have developed a liking to orthochromatic film that, similar to paper can be developed under red safelight. Thus making everything less complicated: no need for developing tanks, no total darkness, the inability to see the process of the development, and have the possibility to interrupt or prolong it. There are possibilities to use a brush to apply the developer or spray it on which may help me to discover some interesting effect to use in future photos.
Why is pinhole photography important to you?
Pinhole is important to me as a medium to create something personal, like a painter creates a painting, a writer writes a book, or a musician makes music. It's a medium that allows me to express myself in some way. I think the human being has had this urge from the beginning of time, hence cave painting for example.

It's also important to me as to record how things change, it’s not that I do not like change. I take my photos so I can remember how things where before. Pinhole photography is perfect for that because it takes a photo of time itself so much more that traditional cameras. There is more of the time itself in the photo, due the slow "shutter speed" that can extend to minutes, hours, or even days and weeks like in solargraphy.

Pinhole photography is important to me for all the different possibilities it offers and it's versatility. Elastic rules seem to apply to it: time, subject, distance and form can be worked with. One can make custom cameras to get directly what one wants such as what type of photo, format size, negative, paper, or instant photo medium. There is the human factor itself that seems to exist in the pinhole photo so much more than in a photo that has been taken at 1/1000 of a second with any commercial photographic camera.
 
Final Thoughts: I first saw Olaf's work which was posted in my Flickr group (The Pinhole Camera). I was immediately transfixed with the old-world feeling and luminousity of his images. I admire his back-to-basics photographic philosophy and the work he produces from a simple homemade wooden box. To check out more of his personal work, review his Flickr account today.

- BJK, December 2009.