Interview with Tom Miller

Tom Miller, one of the photgraphers behind the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day talks about the event and his own pinhole obsession.

Interviewer / Malin Fabbri
Photography / Tom Miller

Once a year, on the last Sunday of April the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day takes place. It has grown immensly. In 2001 291 phootgraphers took part, and by 2007 the number was over ten times that. All around the world, photographers take pinhole photographs on that day and upload them on the internet for everyone to see.

Image right: “Minnesota Receding” is one of Tom’s favorite pinhole photos. Minnesota Receding was taken with a Whitman Candy tin camera on 2.25 x 3.25 Ilford sheet film. The photo was taken out the rear window of a train as it crossed the St. Croix River between the American states of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Malin: How did it all start?

Tom: The idea for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day sprang from the mind of Zernike Au, of Zero Image Cameras, on February 14, 2001. He wrote an email to the pinhole discussion listserv wishing everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day and wistfully mentioning that it would be wonderful if there were a special day for pinhole photography. The idea took. A group was quickly formed to develop plans for the holiday, to develop the rules and build the website. By April 29, 2001, it was ready.

Much of the success for the first and all subsequent Pinhole Day celebrations goes to founding webmaster Gregg Kemp. He wrote the first pinhole day website in just over two months; the site’s gallery is still on the website.

Gregg provided web programming and leadership for several years. The original site was translated into twelve languages for the first year; we’re now up to seventeen. Jean Daubas coordinated translations for the first several years.

Malin: What were your expectations when you started pinhole day? Has it lived up to your expectations?

Tom: To be honest, I had embarrassingly little to do with the first Pinhole Day. I contributed a little to the press release and submitted a photo to the exhibit. So, I had no expectations. The second year, I joined the team in the new category of Event Coordinator. Since then, it has been a joy each year to see more people from more countries take part.

Image left: “Sipping Cappuccino” is Tom’s self-portrait made with a two-slit camera onto 4×5 Ektachrome, which was cross-processed and printed using tradition methods. The file is a scan of the print.

Malin: What’s in it for you?

Tom: The rewards are intrinsic, simply the joy of knowing how much Pinhole Day means to people, especially children, around the world.

Locally, I’ve organized a number of make-your-own-pinhole-photo opportunities as fun and fundraising events for local art centers. The site of wide eyes and smiles on adults and children alike make it a never-ending thrill. I know that the same joy happens when a classroom of photographs are submitted to the WPPD gallery.

WPPD started as and continues to be a grass-roots non-commercial organization. We accept donations, and receive just enough each year to cover web hosting.

Malin: How much time does it take each year?

Tom: I don’t keep track of the time that WPPD takes, since it is a labor of love; it is easily in the hundreds of hours each year, though. Now that the website has been running smoothly for several years, most of this work takes place between Pinhole Day and May 31, the submission deadline.

Malin: What does your family think of your addiction?

Tom: My family is pretty tolerant of my pinhole activities. When my daughter was small, she’d recognize an empty tin can as a good possibility for a camera. When I would take a pinhole photo of her and a friend, you could recognize my daughter, but the friend would always be a blur.

Malin: How did you start pinholing?

Tom: The spark was “Our Lady of the Nectarines” by Willie Anne Wright. I saw it in a photography text that I bought doing self-teaching in photography. The photo was unlike anything I’d seen before; and I promised myself that if the opportunity ever arose, I’d learn pinhole. Later, a book catalog drifted in from Photo Eye, with a listing for the forthcoming first edition of Eric Renner’s book Pinhole Photography, Rediscovering a Historic Technique. After ordering, the book arrived the day before I started a darkroom class. What good luck! I’ve been pinholing ever since.

Malin: What do you like most about pinholing?

Tom: Pinholing helps develop and maintain intuition.

The lack of a viewfinder; distortions from diffraction; lengthy exposure times; curved film planes; and, with slit photography, the flow and contortions of light through the slits takes me away from rational thought. Developing skill with pinhole exercises parts of the brain that aren’t used with other methods of photography, let alone other aspects of life.

Even with slow exposures, there isn’t enough time to think through all of the factors involved. What’s commonly called a “leap of faith” is necessary.

Malin: How many pinhole cameras do you own?

Tom: Goodness. I probably have over a hundred cameras. I have thirty small tin can cameras that I use for make-your-own-pinhole-photo events and quick hands-on demos during talks as a guest speaker in high school or college classes. The make-your-own events are fun-and-fundraisers for local art and photo groups. The cameras are pre-loaded with paper; participants get the camera, make an exposure and we do the rest: develop the photo and, on Pinhole Day, scan and upload the image. I have another set of thirty little sheet film cameras, roughly the same size as Altoid tins. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how fast you can make thirty pinhole exposures on film! All the little tins fit neatly in a relatively small box, smaller than 15 film holders, so I can take them on hikes. Another camera set is ten potato chip tins that hold 11 x 14 sheets of photo paper. These are my favorite cameras. Ten will fit into my car, but I can only carry four at a time comfortably. I use a Pinhole Blender frequently, a Zero 6×9 on occasion and have a number of other cameras that are experiments or prototypes for workshops or are waiting for the time and subject to appear.

Malin: Which type of pinhole camera do you use most?

Tom: The last few years, I’ve used my Pinhole Blender and my potato chip tins more than any others. The Blender is an amazing and versatile tool. I use it in different ways. First, the way it was designed, triple exposed 2 x 5 negs. Lately I’ve been doing more long run-on images where overlapping exposures are as long as the roll of film. If done correctly, this technique can also be used like a Cirkut camera to make long panoramas.

Image left: “Dad and Daughter” is a self-portrait that includes Tom’s daughter. Also in the photo is a Daruma from Ed Levinson in Japan. He was a mascot for Pinhole Day that year and has one eye opened. In Japan, one buys a Daruma when starting the New Year or a big project. One eye gets painted when wishing success for the project; the other eye gets painted when the project succeeds. Both of Daruma’s eyes are looking at Tom right now from my book shelf.

Malin: Does your camera take paper or film? Which do you prefer?

Tom: I use film and paper about equally, at least in terms of time spent pinholing and the number of resulting photographs.

Malin: What’s the most unusual pinhole camera you have ever used or seen?

Tom: I’ve been impressed by Ralph Howell’s pinhole kitchen, where he turned all the cupboards, drawers and appliances into pinhole cameras. Wayne Martin Belger’s cameras are in a unique dimension as well. The most unusual camera I’ve ever seen – if it counts – was made by the late Bill Erickson from a copy-paper box that had a Ritz cracker aperture attached with peanut butter. This one might not count, because by the time I saw the camera, Bill’s dog had eaten the cracker.

One time I set up my two-slit camera and found that I only had one slit with me – and this was before I started getting forgetful. I wanted that photo, and made a second slit out of two pieces of 3M photo tape that were a tiny fraction of an inch apart. The photo turned out, but pretty lousy, a reminder not to forget so much.

Image right: “Bell Schnickels” is the first pinhole photo Tom ever made, in Febuary 1996, using a round Quaker Oats box and a paper negative.

Malin: Who is your favorite pinhole artist?

Tom: This is a dangerous question to ask. I truly don’t have one favorite pinhole artist. There are many folks I admire for various reasons. Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer are on the list for sure. Their assemblages and pinhole photos of the assemblages are stunning. Eric’s work spans a wide range of creative techniques. I admire Willie Anne Wright; she was the inspiration for me to get started in this medium and continues to produce high-quality and evocative photos. The late Marnie Cardozo is a hero as well; she worked quietly and deliberately, creating her own unique approaches and styles. Locally, Jeff Korte and Chris Faust have produced marvelous and compelling photos. Most of Jeff’s work is along the North Shore of Lake Superior. His work immediately connects with all viewers, something that is difficult to do. Chris is known for his excellent panoramic lens work over a period of decades. He’s been pinholing for even longer. His photo taken from the inside of a playpen, with a zone plate on a Cirkut camera and containing several exposure of the same little boy standing on the outside of the playpen is the Joy of Pinhole at its best.

Malin: We all know the history of pinholes, but where is the future taking pinholing?

Tom: Pinholing seems to be moving into the main stream and going commercial. I guess this is understandable; people want to make money from an increasingly popular activity. It seems that pinhole is gaining some respect in the academic world beyond the near-mandatory one session in Photo 1 classes everywhere.

Now, get a pinhole camera, get ready to pinhole! Read more on

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