Pinhole Photography Enthusiast Keeps an Eye on LBI

Jul 04, 2018
Photo by: Nancy Breslin

When creative people vacation on Long Beach Island, the ways in which they capture the sights and surroundings offer a unique view of the visitors’ experience. On Twitter last week, some unusual images surfaced that were shot in Beach Haven, their ethereal look created with a pinhole camera. The photographer, Nancy Breslin, is an accomplished artist and photography teacher who lives and works in Washington, D.C., with her philosopher husband, Peter Caws.

Annually, Breslin and her four siblings, plus the spouses and kids, plan a family vacation together, more than once on LBI, and most recently in a Victorian on Coral Street in Beach Haven. But, throughout their childhood, their parents rented a different house on LBI for the last two weeks of August and later built a house on Bond Avenue in Brant Beach before they sold it to retire to Forked River.

Her art career traverses the timeline of photography history from the dark room to the digital world; in 2002 she bought her first pinhole camera, and it dramatically changed her work as an artist. In addition to being a fun art tool, it’s also “a beautiful object,” she said. Breslin’s “Pinhole Diary of Eating Out” is a 15-year project that includes images from dinners on the porch on Coral Street and in the dining room of the beach house. Exposure times can range from 10 seconds to several minutes to an hour – once she achieved an interesting composition after shooting a 20-minute exposure and then accidentally leaving the shutter open overnight.

She has also captured nighttime views of Fantasy Island Amusement Park, another subject matter she enjoys.

It’s the “retro” look, the romantic, dreamy quality – the poetry of it – that she finds so appealing.

She uses T-Max 400 medium format film, which she sends out for developing at Colourworks Photographic Services in Wilmington, Del. Her photos are shot on film, but she scans them and stores them on a computer so “they end up having a digital life,” she explained. Here’s a fun “hack”: a digital 35mm SLR can be modified to shoot “pinhole” with a body cap.

She’s also interested in other antique and alternative processes such as cyanotype, gum bichromate, toy cameras, light leak. With these processes, a finished photograph could take as long as a week to produce. And, while the effect is one that might be achieved with an Instagram filter, the art form is in the methodology.

“It’s the antithesis of instant gratification,” she said.

On YouTube she has a 5-minute introduction to the art form that explains how to make a homemade pinhole camera from any light-tight container, such as a Pepperidge Farm cookie tin or oatmeal box. Line the inside with black construction paper and drill a 1-millimeter hole in it, with a flap for the shutter. The diameter of the hole determines the focal length; since there is no lens, the depth of field is infinite, meaning everything is in focus. The film plane can be flat or curved (upside down and backward like our retina); the image can be burned onto film or photo paper. The only downside is that method requires access to a darkroom and developing chemicals.

Breslin enjoys a robust social media presence. On tumblr, she has about 4,000 to 5,000 followers and gains new ones each week.

Her inspirations include fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville, who rose to prominence in the 1970s and whose work is known for a certain “grunge” or “haunted” look; Photo-Secession, an early 20th-century movement that promoted photography as a fine art and the international style and the aesthetic known as pictoralism; and fine art photographers Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, with their soft focus and surrealism.

As she explains in her artist statement, “The relatively long exposures (ranging from a few seconds outside, to an hour or more in a dim interior) cause moving objects to blur.”

Her series titled “Pinhole Diary of Eating Out,” comprised of thousands of images, “becomes an oddly distorted form of visual journaling, as the things I am most engaged with during the meals (the people I am with) become ghostlike, while details I may not have noticed, such as salt shakers or a ceiling fixture, are preserved,” she explained.

“As seconds or minutes are compressed into a single frame, the often noisy and chaotic spaces become quiet and dream-like, not unlike the way experiences can be transformed by memory. This ambiguity also changes these photographs from straightforward documents of my meals to representations of a more universal ritual.”

After spending a decade as an academic psychiatrist, in 1997 Breslin left medicine to pursue her art. She completed an MFA at the University of Delaware in 2000 and received Individual Artist Fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts in 2003 and 2008. She has taught photography part-time at the University of Delaware and the Corcoran College of Art & Design and, in 2012-13, was a visiting artist at Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library.

She has exhibited in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and Texas, entered prestigious contests and is published in numerous books, collections and periodicals.

Her art follows her travels. You can, too: @nbres on Twitter and Instagram; pinholediary.tumblr.com; flickr.com/photos/squaremeals/; and on her YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/nancybreslin.

— Victoria Ford

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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