Some Assembly Required: James Gilmore

This series focuses on those who take the making of pictures a step or two further, creating their own photographic tools.

Hedge Creek Fall, 8x10 platinum contact print from homemade pinhole camera.

James Gilmore, Mt. Shasta, CA

James Gilmore views pinhole photography as a great (re)introduction to the basics of photography. Constructing his own large format pinhole camera, Gilmore allows himself to experience photography in a new way. Without being able to look through the camera, he relies on “sensing” the image before pointing the camera at the scene or object, and uses his intuition to determine the exposure. This serendipitous way of working reminds him of why and how he makes images.

As a photography professor at a rural community college, Gilmore incorporates pinhole cameras into the curriculum. “Everything is so easy today for amateurs, with millions of digital images generated every minute, and sent as email attachments, posted to social media, etc. The easier it gets, the further we are separated from the actuality of what happens when light hits a recording media. Judging by the popularity of the film-based classes at my school, people yearn to actually create a real artifact, i.e., a self-made print that they can hold in their hands, that isn't a transient image flickering on a screen.” For their first assignment, his students must build a camera out of paint cans and use paper negatives. The pride they take in making a tangible print opens them up the possibilities of photography.

8x10 pinhole camera.

8x10 pinhole camera.

Gilmore initially built this camera to show his students the basics of photography, the simplicity of rendering light onto film, and the reversal inherent in every image that passes through an aperture. The body of the camera is constructed from medium density fiberboard and black gatorfoam, and the rear of the camera is lined with felt and aluminum rail to hold the 8x10 film holder in place. The pinhole aperture itself is a piece of brass shim material, held in place with gaffer’s tape. Gilmore describes the camera as a “living thing” for its need for constant maintenance and repairs.

Based on his rudimentary calculations, the f-stop is approximately f227 and the focal length is around 7 inches. After completing the camera, Gilmore used paper negatives to get a feel for its settings, but moved to sheet film after making adjustments. The image Hedge Creek Fall is the result of a 75-minute exposure, an “educated” guess. During the exposure, he went for a walk with his dog and realized the additional time that would be needed for reciprocity failure and adjusted accordingly. While the same effect of the waterfall could have been rendered with a five-minute exposure, Gilmore believes, “there is a meditative aspect to such a lengthy exposure. Besides, the camera itself left me no choice."


View more of James’ work on his website.

Have you made or modified your own photographic equipment? Let us know at info@donttakepictures.com.