Inside the Mind (and Mouth) of a Pinhole Photographer

Justin Quinnell

Photographer Justin Quinnell says he has a lot of crazy ideas and not enough time to try them all.

But one day more than a decade ago, he started thinking about a pinhole camera he had, about 3 inches across, which he figured was nearly indestructible. You could drop it off bridges, he said, or attach it to windshield wipers. Or put it in your mouth. So that’s what he did. He hasn’t looked back.

“I love it because it’s really quite uncomfortable and that’s fine. Some pictures are a bit contrived. Others are accidental flukes. Some are a bit unnerving. Others, I’ll never forget taking them.”

Like the one he took lying down on the floor of the Guggenheim, smiling at the ceiling to capture the spiral ramp. Or the one he tried to take when he put corn in his mouth along with the camera, hoping to attract and photograph pigeons. Or the one in the hospital, when his wife was giving birth to their son.

“I have a very open-minded wife,” he said. “But the photo didn’t come out. It was a shame.”

Justin Quinnell

Justin Quinnell

Justin Quinnell

It’s a tough trick to pull off well. He says he takes between 15 and 20 images of a subject with what he calls “The Smileycam” before he gets a few that he likes, and he’s learned to tape a bit of cellophane on the back of the camera to prevent saliva from dribbling into the film. Having a big mouth helps, he said.

But anyone can do it, Quinnell said, with some 110 film and patience. You can also learn the process on his website or attend one of his classes in New York or D.C. next month.

Quinnell has made a career of pinhole photography since 1989 and the joy of it, he said, is experimenting. He has a shed near his house, he said, containing nearly 200 cameras made from regular objects. Right now, he’s trying to make a wearable pinhole camera out of cardboard.

“That’s the way pinhole photographers work,” he said. “We don’t really think in terms of subjects. We find objects and then we think, ‘What would happen if …’ “

Justin Quinnell

Justin Quinnell

Sometimes he disguises the cameras with straw and hides them outside, or leaves them about his house for months as a single long exposure. When he collects them, he said, it’s like harvesting. 

A lot of his experiments don’t work, Quinnell said. But it’s most often the cameras that encourage accidents or allow for the unknown that are most interesting. Lately, for instance, he’s been making pinhole cameras using the holes in crackers.

“I don’t think there’s enough edible cameras,” he said.