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Pinhole Is Pinhole: An Interview with William Christiansen

'Divina', 5x7 paper negative shot by Christiansen with the 'Tubocam'.
Divina, 5×7 paper negative shot by Christiansen with the ‘Tubocam

Christiansen's custom built 'Tubocam', which gives an ultrawide 170 degree angle of view.
Christiansen’s custom built ‘Tubocam’, which gives an ultrawide 170 degree angle of view.
'Emilie Rose Bishop', digital exposure shot by Christiansen and a Canon EOS with custom zoneplate bodycap.
Emilie Rose Bishop’, digital exposure shot by Christiansen and a Canon EOS with custom zoneplate bodycap.
A custom pinhole bodycap for a Pentax 67.
A custom pinhole bodycap for a Pentax 67.

“ Our philosophy was, if we couldn’t build it we probably didn’t need it. For me it’s probably 75% of the whole enjoyment factor. To see the image creations that come out of these devices is icing on the cake of our day. I even feel kinda empty upon completing a camera.”

A few years ago, I was browsing ebay for camera shutters. The Ilex #3, especially, is suited for conversion into use on pinhole cameras, being simply designed, reliable, and cable-release ready. Imagine my surprise when a general search for shutters yielded a gorgeous, titanium-bodied disc – labeled specifically for pinhole photography – offered by a seller named pinholebilly. My first reaction was that this fellow had discovered some vintage scientific surplus, possibly overstock from a long-forgotten laboratory or disbanded physics department at a nameless University. Capitalizing on his find, I imagined he was simply inserting pinholes into the devices and reselling them to the highest bidder. Regardless, I knew he was poised to make some pinholers very happy.

My surprise redoubled itself when I discovered that pinholebilly – real name William Christiansen – had not actually caught a windfall of lost precision equipment. He is, in fact, an extraordinarily talented photographer, designer, and custom machinist, and builds these eye-catching mechanisms by hand in his small machine shop in Maplewood, Wisconsin. In addition, Christiansen produces pinhole apertures and zone-plates to order, builds custom camera parts such as pinhole bodycaps, and still manages to find time for his personal photography practice and custom camera designs.

Christiansen recently made room in his busy schedule for an interview, tracing his path from mechanically inclined youth to wisened pinhole practitioner:

I’ve heard you referred to by many names: William, Pinholebilly, Bill . . . how should we refer to you? Are there any other nicknames we should know about?

Howdy there Ben. Oh, pinholebilly is fine.

Ok, pinholebilly it is. Today, you’re a machinist, pinhole photographer, lensless imaging product designer, and small business owner. Can you talk briefly about your background – the major steps in your personal journey?

Back in 1979 I became an immensely fortunate person, meeting my soul mate.

Ricki appreciated the art I had created prior to our becoming involved. At that stage I was painting hard-edge surrealistic thoughtscapes. She was a piping drafter at the same outfit I was working at as a blueprint reproduction tech. My main goal in life was to some day possibly sell the art that I created, along with the work of other area artists. Since then – and throughout our marriage – she has supported my goal. None of what I have done or created could have been accomplished without her support, and I thank her.

Christiansen and wife, Ricki.
Christiansen and wife, Ricki

With the economy falling in around 1980-81, we decided to move to Door County, WI, and renovate an old general store that was made in 1902. So, building a gallery in part of the house seemed an option.

She had found a good job with another engineering firm and has been there since. All in all, jobs were scarce at that time, so I worked on the house. Funds were tight, so we had to move mountains by ourselves, taking our time. Here it is 2009 and we’re still workin’ on it.

I had been amazed with photography since childhood when my parents would blanket off our small kitchen and transform it into a darkroom. They had been interested in photography during their high school years, and had kept all of their equipment.

My dad was employed by Western Electric, who supplied telephone equipment for the Bell System. He also was the leading force behind my becoming knowledgeable with the mechanics of all sorts of items. From electronics, to astronomy and woodworking, we messed around with it all. From 1971 through 1974 I was a camera repair technician for the Eastman Kodak Co. in Oak Brook, IL and Dallas, TX. I learned a great deal during that gig. My mom, brother, and sister-in-law, were also in the Kodak family.

Basically, I learned machining from The School of Trial and Error and Self Taught. I also did some college for graphic art, but that got old. For some very odd reason, after spending four years during the ‘60’s in the U.S. Navy Seabees and experiencing war in Vietnam, I became obsessed with abstract and surrealistic art forms. I was hooked and pinhole imaging was going to be part of it.

Could you talk a bit about growing your pinhole interests into a business

I became interested in pinhole imaging around 1991. I had found The Pinhole Resource in New Mexico, and they were marketing a set of pinhole apertures that were made in Sweden, I think it was. They were all etched on the same small sheet of brass. That didn’t impress me much, so I decided to drill my own on larger sheets of thinner stainless steel.

This benchtop drill press is what Christiansen uses to drill pinholes in thin sheets of stainless steel.
This benchtop drill press is what Christiansen uses to drill pinholes in thin sheets of stainless steel.
Christiansen's Apo II shutter is made from titanium, brass, and Garolite, and is cable-release activated. Pinholes and zoneplates of varying dimension may be swapped in and out depending on focal length.
Christiansen’s Apo II shutter is made from titanium, brass, and Garolite, and is cable-release activated. Pinholes and zoneplates of varying dimension may be swapped in and out depending on focal length.

I was fortunate in having The Pinhole Resource market my set, too. I also converted original manufacturer’s body caps into pinhole and zone plate devices. Later on I got tired of buying certain body caps, so I designed and produced my own. Pinhole body caps are the very easiest way to experience lensless imaging.

Do you find you still have time to make personal work?

Do I still find time for personal work? Well, no, not that much – and I miss it. When I do get out there I respect the time spent. I’m one of these guys that have a bad habit of starting too many projects and not finishing all of them. I’ve got a feeling that might not change. Although, Friday night is “Art Night”. I make time for that. Monday morning I’m back producing very small portals an’ lovin’ it.

Tell us a bit more about your gallery. Is it only online, or do you maintain a physical gallery as part of your business?

Well, we’re on the south end of a very artistic county, and the more active galleries are farther north. I took down our sign a few years ago because we’d only get like two walk-ins a year. I was also working as a picture framer and wedding photographer. Those jobs were by appointment. I really wasn’t into the walk-in thing anyway. I just wanted to keep working on art and camera gear.

In the mid ‘90’s I tried the whole “submission of artwork thing”, to other galleries throughout the country, but became quite dismayed by the lack of courtesy some of the galleries had. Most would not even send back my inquiry letter in a self addressed stamped envelope. It’s like they didn’t even want to see the artwork, much less the letter. Whatever. We live, we learn, eh?

The website (see address at the end of the interview) gives a pretty good idea of what we’re up to. Pinhole Resource is still one of my outlets, as is Calumet Photo and Mono-Chrom in Germany. Pinholebilly is my handle on eBay, which has been rewarding also.

So, basically, the business is all about photo device production, including conversions of client’s own camera gear. The picture framing has ended except for personal stuff, and the wedding photography has slowed down greatly with the rise in digital imaging. I guess folks find it easier to do it themselves.

Pinholers are largely a DIY crowd, and scrap wood, cardboard, aluminum cans, and gaffer’s tape seem to be popular material choices for our cameras. Your designs feature titanium, sophisticated plastics, and internal spring-loaded mechanisms. What advantages do you feel arise from this precise, polished level of craft?

Yes, the pinhole family is definitely DIY. As mentioned earlier, I was raised building things. I can still remember back to the early 1950’s when mom would haul out a big wooden box that housed the black pipe and cast iron fitting collection. Nipples, elbows, tees and the such could be put together to keep a small kid busy on a summer afternoon. When we grew out of that she would drive us around to radio/television repair shops where we would ask the folks for any refuse chassis that we could have. My brother and I would sit there for days cutting out capacitors, resistors, transformers and wiring for our collections. God only knows the amount of lead and chemicals we got into our system.

Well anyway, later on, our philosophy was, if we couldn’t build it we probably didn’t need it. I totally agree with the folks that truly enjoy building pinhole devices. For me it’s probably 75% of the whole enjoyment factor. To see the image creations that come out of these devices is icing on the cake of our day. I even feel kinda empty upon completing a camera. “Well, better start somethin’ new!”

Machining the internal nest for the pinhole aperture in the Apo II.
Machining the internal nest for the pinhole aperture in the Apo II.
Large format variable focal length pinhole camera designed and fabricated by Christiansen.
Large format variable focal length pinhole camera designed and fabricated by Christiansen
Christiansen at his lathe in his Maplewood, WI, machine shop.
Christiansen at his lathe in his Maplewood, WI, machine shop.

As for the materials that some of us use, I don’t think it matters at all. The main reason I utilize the things I use is basically because I can learn from the machining process and expect a good looking and accurate device that will be consistent if mass producing that item. I appreciate doing a good job.

A followup question: Have you ever received criticism for creating “fancy” pinhole equipment? How would you respond to opinions that such high-end devices are not “in the spirit” of pinhole photography?

Actually, no. As artists, if our goal is creating art, I don’t think it matters how we get to that end. We’re going to be producing art either way. Pinhole is pinhole.

I absolutely love having the wet darkroom up and running, while going back and forth from the tripod in the back yard or wherever, with an oatmeal cylinder camera using enlarger paper. We’ll learn from each exposure.

On the other hand, I also truly enjoy hiking deeper into the woods with a digital camera fitted with a pinhole or zone plate body cap. With digital lensless imaging I enjoy making devices for the body that produce the widest angle of view as possible.

Sometimes, I’ll expose the same scene with both pinhole and zone apertures and layer the finished image.

Can you talk a bit about your pinhole philosophy? Is it limited to making a pinhole photograph, or is there a whole-of-life implication to your perspective?

I don’t relax enough. When I get out in the wilds and watch the timer tick, I am transformed into a more restful being. There’s a certain feeling, eh? Lensless imaging slows the artist’s pace. One can experience so much just being there, listening, to nothing, if that’s the case. It’s just not the same as walking through life with a lens camera.

Can you speak to your process of taking a picture? Does it change depending on the camera you’re using? Do you have a shooting ritual?

I’ll spend a great deal of time designing an image idea. One of my favorite sayings is “ ya know, ya don’t want to rush into anything”. Maybe that’s one reason the house ain’t done, eh?

I’ll find myself thinking about the possibilities in the middle of the night or while I’m doing more important things like driving or chopping onions with a chef’s knife.  I might dream up a possible image in November, think about it all winter and have to wait till spring to try it out, insisting the surroundings are to my specs.

It doesn’t really change depending on the camera or equipment. When I’m goin’ lenless I’m relaxing and enjoying the moment.

On your website you refer to “photographic enlightenment”. What does this phrase mean to you?

Photographic Enlightenment? Viewing a finished image that makes me feel the way I did in the ‘50’s when my first contact print came up in the Dektol. Either on the monitor or in the darkroom I’m witnessing a creation that’s mine, to be shared. The enlightenment is the artist’s reward.

Folks, f269 an’ be there!!!

For more information on what pinholebilly is doing up there in Maplewood, WI, and to see some more of his spectacular equipment and imagery, check out his website.