A Pinhole Diary of Eating Out

by Erin Malone on December 2, 2007

“…people seem to enjoy seeing the meal from this very different perspective.”

Close on the heels of one of the biggest meals of the year in the US, it is only fitting that we feature the work of an artist who has spent the last five years capturing the passage of time over a meal. Nancy Breslin, takes her pinhole camera everywhere and brings it out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Over the last several years she has dined, documented and created over 600 images. Starting in the fall of 2002, she took the images online in 2003. Without Lenses asked Nancy to elaborate on how she started this project and where she is going from here.

Erin Malone: Is this a continuing, ongoing project?

Nancy Breslin: While the first was in fall, 2002, since the spring of 2003 I have been shooting my meals out (restaurants, friends homes…) with that pinhole camera very consistently, soon after I started posting them at fotolog (in May, 2003) I began to note the date, place and exposure time for each one.

What type of camera/format do you shoot with?

The Zero 2000 which takes 120 film. I typically shoot with TMax 400 and I process it myself.

With the f/138 opening of this camera, it gives me 1-2 second exposures outdoors, 10-30 seconds by bright windows, all the way down to an hour or more (e.g. a restaurant with low lighting and candles). I carry a light meter and mini tripod (along with the camera) all the time.

Do you ever build your own cameras?

I have built a number of pinhole cameras, including ones from photo boxes, cookie tins and, of course, an oatmeal box, but I’ve continued to use my Zero 2000 for all pinhole projects. I recently bought a beautiful Cameo 625, which takes 120 film like the Zero 2000, handmade by Mark Brown of Virginia, and plan to use it for a landscape project.

You mentioned that the waiters and waitresses often move the items you bring as well as the table items – do you tell them you are making a photo?

I try to keep an eagle eye on my camera when food is brought – if the camera is moved to make way for a platter or some ketchup, the shot is ruined.

I do mention the camera to people I am with, but don’t make a point of telling waiters, although they often ask me what the pinhole camera is (it’s more obvious if I have to put it on the mini tripod). When I explain, most people are really interested. I also try to keep a postcard from one of my shows with me, for people who seem particularly interested, or who can’t understand how the camera works (some people think that a long exposure means the camera is recording a moving image, like video). I’ve had a few “camera phobic” friends who need reassurance that they won’t be recognizable in the image, although one person still asked that the camera be pointed the other way.

Do you ever take a final image back to the restaurant – when the image is made in a restaurant?

I haven’t taken images back to the restaurants. However, when I have lunch out with a friend, or at a friend’s home, I send a link to that person when I post that meal on fotolog, and people seem to enjoy seeing the meal from this very different perspective (the blur, the different vantage point…).

What’s the weirdest place you dined and made an image?

I’m not sure which would count as “weird,” but some have been unusual, such as photographing my husband and daughter eating pretzels under one of Christo’s gates in Central Park or eating pasties at platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station of Harry Potter fame.

Do you have a favorite image?

I don’t think I have a single favorite, but am most drawn to some where the lighting is beautiful (while doing other types of photography, I’m very drawn to wonderful light, but for this project I have little control over that – the table by the windows looks great, but the hostess might seat us somewhere else) and also to images with teapots.

With over 600 images in this project, do you think you’ve captured it all?

I see no reason to stop now! Each image is so different, even when I revisit a particular restaurant.

Is it ever done?

Not yet. Maybe after 10 years of this…

In your bio, you say you came late to photography. Did you start out with traditional lens cameras or did you start out doing pinhole?

I took an intro photo class in 1996, and loved it so much that I decided to become a photographer. I used lensed cameras exclusively for the first few years (except for one failed attempt with a badly-homemade pinhole camera), but in 2002 I saw the Zero 2000 in the Freestyle catalog and bought it on an impulse. It’s been in my bag ever since and it is now my primary camera.

What artists/photographers inspire you?

I think most of the photographers I’m drawn to use lensed cameras, but their work typically has some of the soft, odd, ethereal appeal of pinhole. Back in the 1970′s, long before I knew anything about photography, I was grabbed by the unusual fashion photography of Deborah Turbeville. I love the work of Gertrude Kasebier and some of the other pictorialists, such as Clarence White. The dreamy dystopias created by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison are strange and wonderful. Pinhole photographers I like include Martha Casanave, Craig Barber and Jesseca Ferguson. A favorite pinhole image is the funny and charming potato self-portrait by Ralph Howell.

What advice do you have for those just starting out?

If you tried building a pinhole camera on your own and it didn’t really work, don’t give up. I had built my own before buying the Zero: I used a needle and tin foil, had no idea about exposure, and got a small, dark, round image and gave up on it. Seeing the results of the Zero, I was careful when I built my next one, and when I have students build cameras they need to know the needle diameter, use pie tins or soda cans instead of tin foil, sand down the opening, and calculate the f/number of the camera. Most then get great results with little frustration.

What’s your current project?

I have several ongoing projects, in addition to “Squaremeals.” I have a growing pinhole amusement park series, part of which was recently exhibited at the Art Trust Gallery in West Chester, PA. This may sound peculiar, but for a few years I’ve also been photographing hotel “amenities”—the arrangement of soaps and shampoo that is left on the bathroom counter—and also the hotel pool if there is one. I have presented the soaps and pools from the same hotel as diptychs.

Aside from pinhole, I have also been printing on fabric, including cyanotypes as well as inkjet on silk.

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