Image from a Pinhole Camera: "Maury Quad, 1996"

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Cary Elza, DePaul University

About This Work

I took this pinhole camera photograph with a cookie tin in 1996. At the time, I loved obsolete technology—I used a stack of dead 8-track players and tube stereos as an end table, for instance, and I collected Polaroid cameras from thrift stores and yard sales (the best ones had film in them, and produced reddish, ghostly images). This was right around the time that the Internet started to seep its way into public discourse, remember, and my obsession with outmoded technologies, especially the simplest of them—the pinhole camera, the camera obscura, the magic lantern—was no doubt connected to that, even if I didn’t realize it. These were image technologies that felt real to me, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain why.

The pinhole camera captures a tangible sense of time—in theory, no more so than any other early photographic mechanism would, but using it in 1996 felt subversive. There’s ghostly doubling from the model’s movement during the exposure (as one might guess, the pose was meant to evoke Eastern religion, and the many-armed effect was a happy accident), but there’s also the wear and tear on the photo itself—the corner is bent, the surface is scratched, and a mark that I tried to fix with pencil is especially prominent in a high-resolution scan. But none of these are the punctum for me, to borrow Barthes’ term—instead it’s the model’s watch, which I remember thinking ruined the image. Now, the watch, a nearly obsolete accessory in a post-cellphone age, dates this image better than the medium itself ever could.

"Maury Quad, 1996"

Image of man in sun taken by a pinhole camera


Cary Elza is an instructor in the College of Communication at DePaul University, where she teaches courses on film history, media and cultural theory, and vampires. Her recently-completed dissertation examines Alice in Wonderland narratives—popular representations of female figures who cross between spaces marked as ‘real’ and ‘imaginary'—in the context of technological and social change. Her publications include articles and anthology chapters on Pokemon, The X-Files and literature, Veronica Mars and the figure of the girl detective, Michael Moore's online presence, and Smallville and new media.

© 1996 Cary Elza, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 3 (2013)