Nearly dusk, at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. A gendarme walks up to me and begins to speak in French. He gestures toward my odd-looking pinhole camera sitting on its tripod, surrounded by baggies of water. I think I understand. The park will close in 15 minutes.
Yes, I said, I would be gone by then. No, he explained. It was not possible to photograph in the jardin because I didn't have a permit for my tripod. Too late for that now, as the offices were closed. I would need to pack up and come back the next day.
I looked down the row of barren trees, the light seeping gently through the black branches, the Parisian park chairs facing each other as if still in conversation. Photographs don't happen twice in the same way. But I agreed to move on.
Slowly, I began to pack up my film, plastic baggies, bottles of water, notebook and other camera equipment. The only thing left standing was my pinhole camera on the tripod, which was, unbeknownst to the gendarme, in the process of making a 10-minute exposure of the chairs in the park. Finally I closed the "shutter" on my pinhole camera, pulling out the negative I had just made on Polaroid film, hoping that the film would somehow remain unscratched as I placed it gently in a baggie of water and headed for my hotel room.
Pinhole photography is an archaic process. The exposures are extremely slow, ranging from a few seconds to 10-15 minutes, depending on the light. Because this is a camera that has no real "lens", the the photographs have a rougher, less refined quality--more akin to the imperfect lenses of the early days of photography. The depth-of-field is amazingly deep, due to the tiny size of the pinhole that lets the image through to the film. It's a very different than what I have done in past years for my work and my art using "real" cameras, sharp lenses and regular film.
Making the pinhole photographs becomes a Zen-like meditiation, requiring unending patience. Sometimes a photograph will come to life with few problems. But more often there are light flares, or light leaks, and soon one 10-minute exposure becomes an hour. And then the negative may get nicked as I put it into a baggie to transport it. Or it is damaged inside the baggie as I tramp back to the hotel. Or scratched as I carefully wash it in the hotel bathtub and hang it up to dry on my clothesline, like little black and white laundry.
But the difficulties of the process are well worth it. One time, sitting in cloister of a monastery in France, I thought I heard Gregorian chants. I followed the sound, walking away from my camera as the long exposure was in progress. I looked inside the church, but there was nobody singing. I walked down the hallway, and found no one. I began to think that the singing was just coming out of the walls. I never did find the source of the music. Perhaps someone had a Walkman. But maybe, just maybe, this is what happens when one sits there long enough, as I did, exposing my film.