Pinhole photography in Ginza

Take a box. Put some photographic film in it. Punch a tiny hole in the side of the box opposite the film. Wait.

That’s the essence of pinhole photography. The light coming through the tiny hole projects an image of whatever is outside the box onto the film. The principle is the same as the one behind watching a solar eclipse with a shoebox viewer.

I’ve been aware of the concept of pinhole photography for a long time, but I never gave it much thought until yesterday, when I went to Edward Levinson’s pinhole photography show in Ginza.

Edward Levinson is a pinhole photography genius.

The exhibition, titled “Mind Games, Vol. 2,” is in a small gallery on the second floor of the Ginza showroom of the Eizo color monitor company, but the first works one sees are displayed on the landing of the staircase leading up to it. These are horizontal color prints about meter wide, and each is an arresting composite image that Levinson created with a “Pinhole Blender.” It’s a cylindrical box the size and shape of a cookie tin with not one but three pinholes, which project images onto different but overlapping areas of a single curved piece of film.

The results are bizarre and amazing.

The first photo is titled “Coffee High.” The central image is of a man drinking coffee, blended into images on either side of him that show a wavy decorative pattern on the glass of the coffee shop. Because of the curved film, the side images are slightly distorted in such a way that the wavy pattern almost forcibly focuses the viewer’s attention on the man drinking coffee. It’s actually difficult to move your eyes to any other part of the picture. You get kind of woozy just looking at it.

(You may or may not feel that effect looking at the image at the top of this post, but trust me — it works when you’re standing in front of a meter-wide print. Incidentally, you can click on any of the images here for a slightly larger view.)

Next to that is a photo called “Dharma Watching” in which the central image is a close-up of the grotesque face of a rather ugly-looking metallic Daruma doll. The other two images, both of which are lower down in photo, show the tops of some mountains (in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, where Levinson lives), making it look as if the Daruma is looming in the sky.

In the main room of the gallery there are many more blended pinhole photos, some of which look at one subject from multiple angles, while others juxtapose different subjects in interesting ways. All are in color.

In addition to the photos hanging on the walls, there are three Eizo monitors set up on a table, continuously running slideshows of Levinson’s previous work. And there are copies of his books laid out.

I should disclose that Levinson is an artist to whom I have a slight connection. Long ago, he and I were fellow members of a writing workshop that met in Chiba City. When I used the Golden Week holidays in 1991 to ride my bicycle all the way around the Boso Peninsula, Levinson and his wife kindly let me sleep in their barn when I passed through Kamogawa. But soon after that, I returned to the United States, and we fell out of contact for 20 years – during which he took up pinhole photography, in 1993. We ran into each other again totally by chance at the 2011 Japan Writers Conference in Kobe, and he encouraged me to come to his show.

With that history, I admit that I was inclined to think positively of his work. But I must say with equal candor that I was far more impressed than I expected to be.

In addition to his amazing “Pinhole Blender” work, I was stunned by the black-and-white photos in his book “Timescapes Japan: A Pinhole Journey,” which I sat down and leafed through at the show.

In pinhole photography, according to Wikipedia, a smaller hole in the box leads to a more sharply focused image, but since a smaller hole admits less light it also requires a longer exposure time. This can range from seconds to hours. When photographing buildings or landscapes, this is fine, but it poses a challenge when photographing things that move – like people.

In “Timescapes Japan,” Levinson found multiple ways to turn this challenging aspect of pinhole photography into a tremendous advantage. For example, two of his photos show monks standing on busy city streets with their begging bowls. In each photo, the monk appears to be alone. But then you gradually notice wispy, ghostly figures of other people passing by. The monks remained motionless long enough to appear solid and real in the pinhole view, while it is the laypeople flitting about on their daily business who appear ethereal and unreal.

In another photo, taken from a tall building and looking down at the Sumidagawa river in Tokyo, a boat caught in the act of turning around is blurred into a crescent shape that calls to mind a fat koi wallowing in a small pond. But a photo of actual koi on another page makes the white fish in their muddy water look like calligraphers’ brush strokes drawn in milk on slate.

“Timescapes” is a fitting title, not only because the passage of time can be seen in each photo, but also because at least one of them has taken on a layer of irony that only the further passage of time could supply. Called “Growing up,” the 1997 photo shows a boy standing beside a body of water while a high-rise building looms in the background. The building is recognizable as the Akasaka Prince Hotel, a Tokyo landmark. It looks as solid and as permanent as can be. The boy is not recognizable because he couldn’t hold still the way the building could, and thus is blurred and semitransparent. He looks fleeting and insubstantial.

Today, 15 years later, we can reasonably assume that the boy has grown up and is now a man.

The hotel is slated for demolition.

Practical details

“Mind Games, Vol. 2” will run at the Eizo Galleria Ginza, at 3-10-6 Ginza on Showa-dori avenue just north of Higashi Ginza subway station, through March 3, 2012. Levinson will give a talk there, mostly in Japanese, from 2-3 p.m. on Feb. 25. Admission is free.

Levinson’s website:
Eizo Galleria Ginza site:

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