“I Only See What the Camera Sees”: the Digital Pinhole Photography of Chris Ireland

Afterglow / Artist Feature / Contemporary / Contemporary Photography / KarenTobiasGreen

Chris Ireland is a Yorkshire-born and based photographic consultant and trainer who for the last sixteen years has specialised in digital photography, supplying high-end equipment and software to individuals and industry. Chris is additionally a passionate fine art photographer. He recently developed a unique method of photographing landscape, combining the traditions of pinhole photography with cutting-edge digital technology.

I spoke to Chris at his home in north Leeds, surrounded by images of his digital pinhole photography from a promotional catalogue. I asked the photographer questions relating to the development of a body of work so carefully and painstakingly crafted in this rarely used medium.

Chris Ireland, 'Meanwood Woods'. Image copyright the artist, 2014.

Chris Ireland, ‘Meanwood Woods’. Image copyright the artist, 2014.

Chris describes his near obsession as “putting the two together, ‘the Past’- a pinhole device, to collect the image and ‘the Now’, a digital recording, part connected to the pinhole which I manipulate to do something it was definitely not designed to do”.

A reason behind this desire to juxtapose is discovered if one considers Chris’ childhood experiences. He grew up in south Leeds in the ‘70s and his educational experiences were marred by Dyslexia at a time when understanding of the issue wasn’t high on the comprehensive school system agenda. Reading and writing were practices he longed to access but he felt excluded from both.

At school I did achieve O-Levels in art and was encouraged to take my first art O-Level a year earlier. I was not academic enough to go to art college as I suffer from Dyslexia and this had a profound effect on my resultsmy artistic side was put on hold for many years”.

Chris Ireland, 'Saltburn Pier'. Image copyright the artist, 2014.

Chris Ireland, ‘Saltburn Pier’. Image copyright the artist, 2014.

Chris started taking pictures with an old 126 Kodak plastic camera, photographing his Airfix models close up, trying to make them appear more lifelike. With supportive parents, a desire to capture the landscape close to his Middleton home and the gift of his own camera, Chris was set on a path to landscape photography. It was in the pits, fields and farms of the south Leeds landscape (that no longer exist) that he found his voice, which now echoes in his work.

Chris explains that his artistic process is the marrying of the oldest form of collecting an image with the latest cutting-edge digital technology – from 22 million pixels to 80 million pixel digital backs. The result is a pinhole digital camera that can operate in many conditions and levels of light that a film or paper recording pinhole camera could not work in.

“The traditional pinhole camera, using film or photographic paper, could need an exposure of up to 20 minutes, making pinhole imagery very testing for the artist. The device I have created has no reciprocity failure. In other words, its dynamic range and ability to capture light is amazing and my exposures are achieved in seconds, not minutes”.

The images the artist produces owe much to the fine art sensibility of landscape painting. Chris is aware of the role the pinhole and camera obscura played in the development of fine art landscaping: “It is now thought that many of the Old Master painters used camera obscura to achieve perspective and scale in their works as they recorded their images with charcoal and oils”.

Chris Ireland, 'Holmfirth'. Image copyright the artist, 2014.

Chris Ireland, ‘Holmfirth’. Image copyright the artist, 2014.

Chris cites not only the landscape but also the work of one-time client, and now personal friend, Steve Gosling, as an influence. Gosling is a fine art landscape photographer whose own body of work, based on film, made Chris look into the possibility of practicing pinhole photography with a 39 million pixel digital back.

The beauty of this technique is the softness and almost illuminated quality that is created by the type of pinhole Chris uses. The theme ‘afterglow’ resonates in these images: Chris refers to the halo-like, dreamy feel of his landscapes. With the unique qualities of digital pinhole photography Chris is able to capture images of south Leeds and of the Yorkshire vista in a way which not only provides a very contemporary rendition of place but also references, in the warm afterglow left by captured light, the history, loss and narrative of past landscapes.

Chris’ use of analogue and digital techniques allows him to cross and re-cross the borders between fine art and photography.

Chris Ireland, 'Brimham Rocks in Snow'. Image copyright the artist,  2014.

Chris Ireland, ‘Brimham Rocks in Snow’. Image copyright the artist, 2014.

“As the pinhole is so small I can’t look through the camera to compose an image. I have to see in my mind’s eye what I believe the camera will see. I only see what the camera sees when I have taken the image. The result is a dream-like image with a depth of focus that is almost sharp but still pinhole soft. When printed on structured fine art paper people may believe these are pastel-created drawings, not photographs”.

Images of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Sandsend, Brimham Rocks, Lindley Reservoir and Meanwood Woods litter the floor of Chris’ studio. I ask what his favourite photograph is – half expecting he might pick one of the many that surround us. Instead he says it is a black and white picture of Nat King Cole taken by an old friend, Terry Cryer, in 1959.

“Terry, the Dean of Jazz and Blues Photography (as he was called by MOJO Magazine), gave me the image as a gift for helping him out with some of his camera equipment many years ago. It reminds me of my mother and father dancing together while listening to Nat King Cole’s music on the mono record player we had at home when I was very young”.

The past leaves a kind of afterglow for Chris. Pertinently, the gift of cutting-edge digital technology may end up being its ability to provide us with the fullest and freshest of memories.

Karen Tobias-Green