Pinhole Photographs: Baja Missions and Roadside Shrines














Pinholes Projected Through a Mulberry Tree During an Annular Solar Eclipse, Smartsville, California,
May 20, 201


Pinhole Photography.

The first written records of the optical properties of pinholes comes from Mo Ti in China during the 5th century BC, and in Aristotle’s Problems XV written in 330 BC. Dappled sunlight viewed under trees on clear days is evidence of the optical properties of pinholes. The crescent projections of the sun seen during a solar eclipse (shown above) provides the most dramatic confirmation of the imaging properties of a simple pinhole. Leonardo da Vinci provides us with the most succinct early discussion of the imaging properties of pinhole in his notebooks: [1]

“I say that if the front of a building—or any open piazza or field—which is illuminated by the sun has a dwelling opposite to it, and if, in the front which does not face the sun, you make a small round hole, all the illuminated objects will project their images through that hole and be visible inside the dwelling on the opposite wall which may be made white; and there, in fact, they will be upside down, and if you make similar openings in several places in the same wall you will have the same result from each. Hence the images of the illuminated objects are all everywhere on this wall and all in each minutest part of it. The reason, as we clearly know, is that this hole must admit some light to the said dwelling, and the light admitted by it is derived from one or many luminous bodies. If these bodies are of various colours and shapes the rays forming the images are of various colours and shapes, and so will the representations be on the wall.”[2]

The physicist David Brewster, the inventor of the stereoscope and the kaleidoscope, created the first pinhole photograph. In 1856, he published The Stereoscope,[3]  and coined the term pin-hole.[4] With the impressionist movement in photography, also known as Pictorialism, pinhole photography gained a small foothold in the art world. George Davison’s landscapes with a pinhole including his well known Onion Field,[5] created in 1890, are the best examples of pinhole photography during the Pictorialist era. Davison would use a piece of sheet metal punched through with a small hole for his lens, and he held that no landscape photograph should be sharply rendered and hoped to produce landscape photographs which conveyed “ the general impression created at first glance.  [6] Davison’s pinhole photograph represented a complete break with the technological direction of photography. Beginning in the early 1890’s pinhole cameras and lenses were marketed to the growing numbers of Pictorialist photographers. The sharpness of a pinhole photograph is influenced by the size and sharpness of the pinhole edge. Although pinhole images can be as sharp as human vision,[1] Pictorialists were drawn to the soft focus of quality of pinhole photographs. Although falling out of favor during the modernist period, pinhole photography has become increasing popular photographic teaching tool and art form, connecting practitioners to the mysteries of light.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Pinhole Photography Using the Wanderlust Pinwide with the Lumix Four Thirds Mirrorless Camera.

The introduction of single lens reflex digital cameras has made simple practice of pinhole photography even simpler. All that is necessary to create a digital pinhole photograph is to remove the lens and then cover the lens opening with light-proof material. Foil or black duck tape work just fine.  Next, using a small thumb tack, put a small pinhole in the center of the lens opening and you have modified your DSLR into a digital pinhole camera. Offered by several manufacturers, commercially produced pinhole lenses drill pinhole openings to industrial tolerances. Commercially produced pinhole lenses typically produce sharper pinhole photographs, yet still retain the distinctive wide angle and a infinite depth of field. Recently, the Wanderlust introduced the Pinwide pinhole lenses for Four Thirds mirrorless cameras.

The Four Thirds camera format offers distinct advantages for pinhole photography, and the Wanderlust Pinwide takes full advantage of unique characteristics of this new camera format for experimental photography. Once the camera is set to “shoot without a lenses” setting (which is found in the customs menus settings), exposures are accurately previewed through live view. Exposures are best achieved by dialing in a manual shutter speed setting.  Without a mirror to move out-of-the-way with each exposure, a very wide-angle of view is achieved through the deep recessed design of the Pinwide. The Pinwide pinhole sits only about a centimeter above the sensor, offering an effective field of view of 11mm (or 22mm factored in full frame equivalents). The Pinwide pinhole is produced through “precision etching technology”[7] produces distinctive natural vignette, and color shifts to deep blue and magenta are sometimes present within the shadow areas. The subtraction of the mirror from the Four Thirds camera format lessens camera shake with handheld shooting at slower shutter speeds. Even at higher ISO settings of 3200 and 6400, the soft imaging properties of the pinhole produces a pleasing noise structure across the entire image.

The Pinwide at Baja Sur Missions and Churches.

Recently, I carried the Wanderlust Pinwide attached to a Lumix G3 camera body to photograph four of the eight intact 18th century Jesuit Missions in the Mexican state of Baja Sur: Misión San Luis Gonzaga Chiriyaqui, northwest of La Paz, Misión San Jose de Comondú, in the mountains west of Loreto, Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó, in the picturesque town of  San Javier, and Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, in Loreto. The Pinwide was also used in humble contemporary churches built on former mission sites: at La Purisma, west of Loreto near the Pacific coast, at San Miquel de Comondú, a mountain canyon near Misión San Jose de Comondú  and in cathedral in old town La Paz, the Misión de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de La Paz Airapí.

In Baja, a mission or (misión) was a central religious and administrative center which governed an area of several thousand square miles inhabited by scattered groups of native peoples.[8] Coming upon the great stone churches of Baja Sur, particularly Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó set within a deep mountain canyon and Misión San Luis Gonzaga Chiriyaqui located at the bottom of a low basin in the empty central desert, presents a stunning visual juxtaposition.  Baja Sur’s intact stone missions, remnants of the Jesuit’s 18th century colonization of the Baja Penisula, provides a compelling and challenging subject matter for experiments with the Wanderlust Pinwide lens and the Lumix mirror less camera. Over ninety per cent of the original native populations fell victim to epidemics brought to the Baja Peninsular with the Jesuits. The soft focus and vignetting of the pinhole photographs suggests a communion with the difficult and uncertain past of Baja’s Missions.  The visual texture of the pinhole photographs invokes the atmosphere of ghostly spirituality still present in the austere stone churches of Baja Sur. The colors of the humble contemporary churches built over the sites of former missions emanate a warm glow which speaks to the continued faith begun during the troubled mission period.

The Pinwide at Baja Sur Roadside Shrines.

In addition, the Pinwide and Lumix G3 was used to photograph roadside shrines found along Highway 1, Baja Transpeninsular Highway, and on roads leading to Baja Sur’s Jesuit Missions.  In addition, large roadside shrines to saints are found regularly along Highway 1 remind travelers to offer prayers and remembrances for the deceased. Typically, family and friends erect shrines to the life and death of ordinary persons, called descansos, translated as “resting place” these smaller shrines are seen at regular intervals along Highway 1 and secondary roads. These folk memorials commemorate not the final resting place, but the place where sudden death interrupted a traveler’s journey or where a traveler was last alive or where a loved one was found after a tragic death. Descansos and shrines to saints have been present in North America since the time of the Spanish conquest.[9] [10] As sites of memory and family pilgrimage, these sites serve as warnings to the living of dangerous road conditions as well as cultural protests to the dangerous conditions of the current road system. Moreover, roadside memorials inject the memory of the deceased into the empty space of the landscape of the highway.[10]

In observance, in passing by, in stopping to read and to photograph, the traveler engages in the ritual space constructed by survivors in remembrance of the deceased. The visual structure of this small series of pinhole photographs embraces the interconnected layers the past, and speaks to the creative force of memory within the transient landscape of the highway.

©David Arnold, 2014

Citations / Notes

[1] Eric Renner, Pinhole Photography, Rediscovering a Historic Technique, (Focal Press, Boston, 1995) p. 3-4.

[4] Eric Renner, Pinhole Photography, Rediscovering a Historic Technique, (Focal Press, Boston, 1995) p. 38.

[5] George Davison, The Onion Field, 1890.

[6] Helmut Gernsheim, Creative Photography, Aesthetic Trends 1839-1960,  (Dover, New York, 1962) p. 122.

[7] Wanderlust Pinwide. Products.

[8] Peter Gerhard, “The “Lost Mission” of Baja California,”  Western Folklore, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr., 1958), pp. 97-106.

[9] David Charles Sloane, Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 12, (2005), pp. 64-81.

[10] Deborah Lynn Wagner, “Death, Memory, and Space, A Rural Community Response to  Roadside Memorials,” ProQuest, p. 4.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *