Spiffy Tumbleweed and pinholes

An interview with Spiffy Tumbleweed, how he started out pinholing, his cameras and a couple of good hints and tips to pinholers.

Spiffy Tumbleweed is probably known to many of you as one of the moderators – and hero – doing the everyday work of moderating the AlternativePhotography.com Facebook group.

How did you choose the name Spiffy Tumbleweed?

Spiffy Tumbleweed: The name Spiffy Tumbleweed came about in the early days of the internet, back when AOL was carpet bombing the US with CDs to get you on their service. They required a name and I was not about to inject my given name into what was then a strange and mysterious place. I live in Texas, and Spiffy Tumbleweed sounded like a western cartoon character and thus Spiffy T. was born.  It became my Nom de Artiste when I began posting work online and most of my art and photography friends world-wide know me by no other name. I’ve been published and shown my work in solo and group shows around the world as Spiffy Tumbleweed and it’s the only way I sign my work. I had a fight with Facebook on this issue and they decided Spiffy Tumbleweed was OK by them and promised not to ask again.

Ghostly Marie pinhole by Spiffy Tumbleweed
Ghostly Marie.
A long exposure made with a homemade polaroid pinhole camera. The subject was in the frame about half the time, leaving her somewhat see through.

Why is pinhole your favorite process and chosen medium?

Spiffy Tumbleweed: I think that one does not set out to become a pinhole photographer, rather one slips into it like Alice in Wonderland and finds themselves in a world where the act of making photographs is forever changed and different.  For some of us, like Alice, this world becomes compelling and challenging and before you know it you’re a pinholer and you’re not sure how it happened.  Making an image without a lens changes the way you look at the process of photography and for me, it requires a more thoughtful and purposeful approach. I like to approach my subject with minimalist tools, and I enjoy the process of making and using those tools.  When I shoot some of my Ultra Large Format BFC cameras (Black Foam Core, not Big F’n Camera) the process generally takes more than a day.  I have to load it at night because I don’t have a room in my house that’s dark enough during the day, take it out into the light and make an exposure of several minutes, and then unload it again on another night.  This yields a single image, and when shooting on photo paper, a negative/reversed image which is my desired final product for this type of shooting.  It’s a much more Zen-like process, generally done by feel rather than metering and measuring, at least in my practice.

Pinhole cameras from Spiffy Tumbleweed

How did you discover pinholing and how did you build your first pinhole camera?

Spiffy Tumbleweed: I started doing alternative process photography about 15 years ago, thanks to Malin Fabbri and the original alternative process website.  As part of my ongoing research into all things alt photo, I came across people making photographs without a lens and decided that I needed to give that a try.

“I built my first pinhole camera about a dozen years ago, and unlike most folks whose first pinhole cameras were fashioned from cans and tins and cigar boxes, my first pinhole camera started life as a Polaroid Oscilloscope camera.  This approach took care of several problems including film holders and transport, and developing my images.”

At the time I lacked both the skill and access to a darkroom so Polaroid was an attractive option.  Upon arrival, this camera did not resemble a camera at all, so I tore it apart and kept the parts that sorta looked like a camera.  I fashioned a pinhole from a piece of thin brass shim stock stabbed with a needle, and rigged up a lens cap and lamp parts to make a shutter, and I was in business.  I still have that camera and still shoot it, although film has become difficult to find.

Spiffy Tumbleweeds first camera
Spiffy Tumbleweeds first camera and it’s photo.

How many pinhole  cameras have you built over the years?

Spiffy Tumbleweed: I’ve built dozens of pinhole cameras over the years ranging in size from Altoids tins to 20 x 24 black foam core cameras designed to use photographic enlarging paper.  I went through the stage of seeing all things and every type of container as a potential camera, which I suspect most pinholers do.  I still have a variety of sizes and shapes of containers converted into pinhole cameras that I use to shoot both film and paper. The first of the black film core (BFC) series of cameras came about when I found a pack of 16 x 20 photo paper at a charity sale and decided to build a camera to shoot it.  The BFC 1620 was the first in a long line of these cameras that now covers all standard photo paper sizes as well as well as a variety of medical and industrial films such as X-ray and mammography films.  Large format X-ray films are cheap in comparison to photographic films and when most medical imaging went to digital, these films started falling out into the on-line surplus markets and I started buying them,   These films come in weird sizes, so like when I first found the 16 x 20 paper, I have to build a camera to shoot whatever new recording media I have come across.  I now have a dozen or so converted tins and boxes, a half dozen of the BFC series cameras, and another half dozen or so converted cameras that I have built, in addition to many purchased cameras built by others.

Assorted pinhole cameras

Any tips to other pinholers?

Spiffy Tumbleweed: First off, keep a little notebook and make notes on every shot including the type of film or paper, the time of day and atmospherics (cloudy, clear, morning or evening sun, etc., the subject matter and how it seemed to reflect light, and most importantly the exposure times.  All of the other stuff helps to inform your exposure and time.  A black dog and a snowman are not the same.

“Shooting pinhole requires a tripod or some other method of holding your cameras still.  Your exposure times range from a few seconds for an ASA 400 film to several minutes for photographic paper, so you really need to hold your camera still before you can figure out what else went wrong.”

For converted film cameras or using a body cap pinhole in a film or digital camera body, your tripod mount is provided.  For boxes and tins and such, I use small bags of sand or lead shot to hold the camera steady on whatever support I’m using.  A pinhole body cap is a great way to give pinhole photography a try because in addition to a tripod mount, it uses standard films and offers film transport in the camera, and can also be used with a digital SLR body.  Inexpensive plastic pinhole cameras, such as the Pinholga, offer an affordable entry to medium format pinhole photography. There is a lot of good pinhole photography work online and I would encourage those starting out to look at the work of others to see what is possible.  Put someone into your image for about one half of the exposure and you will learn to make ghosts, photograph swift flowing water and see how it smooths out, take photographs of crowds of moving people and you will learn that they disappear when they don’t hold still long enough to register in your photograph. The possibilities of pinhole photography are many and varied so try a lot of different things and have fun and you just may find you have somehow become a pinhole photographer.

BFC Pedestrian Bridge pinhole by Spiffy Tumbleweed
BFC Pedestrian Bridge.
This is a 16 x20 inch original paper negative from the BFC 1620 home built pinhole camera. I’ll try contact printing this someday, but I do enjoy the negative.

What are the qualities a pinhole brings to an image?

Spiffy Tumbleweed: Pinhole brings the ability to shape the time-space continuum. I can make time standstill in the middle of an exposure and alter my shot while I am in the process of making it. Depending on the materials and camera I have chosen, along with my mood at the time, I can choose to include or exclude people moving through my image. I can choose to be included in my image once, or multiple times, transparent or solid, or even levitate with only a passing nod to reality.

“Ghosts, both intended and not, haunt my pinhole work to my great satisfaction. The practical infinite depth of field is also an attractive feature, but a double-edged sword as you can’t open up the aperture and blur out unwanted backgrounds.”

Pinhole work often has a surrealistic look about it that is difficult to achieve with a lens, and nearly always carries a sense of passing time and the way in which time affects a photograph.  Rough waves create a soft, smooth, and calm surface and clouds show you where they have been.  Extremely long exposures of days, weeks, and months, as done with solargraphs, can capture not only the passage of time, but of seasons, and showing movement generally not visible to us.

Have you mastered the process?

Spiffy Tumbleweed: I can’t even see mastery of this process from where I now stand.  I have far more ideas than time and with so many great pinhole photographers making so much great work I never lack for inspiration nor for hints that I have far to go in this creative journey.  I’m good, but a long way from mastery.  My Dad used to say that you don’t really know something until you can teach it to someone else, and I’m now at a level where I could teach an introductory class for kids, which I probably should do.

Curved film plane BFC camera
Curved film plane BFC camera.

Do you have any favorite pinhole artists?

Spiffy Tumbleweed: The creative influence of other pinhole artists on my own work is undeniable but difficult to pinpoint. I have a number of on-line friends who continually inspire me with their amazing pinhole work, and I freely steal their ideas and concepts. While I don’t attempt to duplicate their work, I suspect these ideas and concepts end up influencing my own work.  I hesitate to name names for fear of leaving out those deserving recognition, but here are a few domestic (USA) pinholers doing great and creative work.  Scott Speck, who lives in the Baltimore area, makes truly amazing architectural pinhole photographs made from a perspective most of us would not even see, much less consider, and he has been a long time inspiration.  Kevin Parent in South Carolina makes hauntingly beautiful pinhole landscapes and seascapes that have a powerful sense of place, Earl Johnson in Minnesota not only makes wonderful pinhole photographs, often of woods, trees, and waterways, he is also my source of supply for the microscopy gates that I have used as precision pinholes almost exclusively for many years.

See Spiffy Tubmbleweeds gallery here.

Pinhole by Spiffy Tumbleweed
Sagrada Familia ceiling, pinhole by Spiffy Tumbleweed.
The ceiling of The Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona Spain. Shot on 120 Kodak Portra VC in a converted Agfa folder pinhole camera. This needed a much wider angle.

Leave a Comment