Sunday, December 17, 2006

Wiley Sanderson, Pinhole Photography and Me

This is a story made for blogging: my most extraordinary experience of 2006.

About a week ago I was talking casually with a woman visiting her mother at a holiday open house. The conversation drifted from one topic to another and I mentioned thinking about setting up a darkroom in the basement for making my own photographic prints. She pointed out that with today's technology darkrooms are no longer necessary. Cameras do everything, including interfacing with a printer to produce any print you like. I agreed but remembered I have some negatives older than me and would like to see what kind of prints they would make. We talked about old photo techniques and I recalled seeing glass negatives from a very old camera, and she said she had developed glass negatives used in electron photography at the University of Georgia. When she mentioned the University of Georgia, I asked if she knew of Wiley Sanderson, thinking perhaps his influence might still be remembered after all these years. She looked at me surprised.

"How do you know that name?" she said, "He's my father!"
"Excuse me," I said, "Your father?"

I cannot describe the feeling, meeting someone after forty years who not only knew this man, but was part of his family. I have a good imagination, but never would I have dreamed of anything such as this. Since his name is not a household word and his craft is going the way of arm garters, crystal radios and gas lights I decided to put at least one post into the blog world about him. I just checked and a Google Blog Search returned Your search - "wiley sanderson" - did not match any documents. This post will change that to at least one result. (A regular Google Web search returns a number of references including a bio, but nothing yet in a Blog Search.)

This is the story...


I can't recall the date, but sometime before I left home, between 1960 and 1963, I had the privilege of learning about pinhole photography from a man who is among a handful of experts on the subject, Wiley Sanderson.

For those who have never heard of pinhole photography, here is a brief explanation. Because of the physics of light, a photosensitive surface in a box with a tiny hole opposite the sensitive side will produce a picture. A simple box can thereby be made into a primitive camera. Using print paper instead of film, the box is loaded in darkness, the hole covered until time for exposure, and the pinhole camera is ready to be used for picture-taking. No lens, no F-stop -- just a box with a piece of photo paper and a hole, ready to make an exposure.

Here is the tough part. The camera only makes one picture at a time. And the exposure is much longer than a regular camera. This is because the hole must be very small, the smaller the better. Since there is no lens, the focus of the picture depends on how small the opening is, and even then the finished picture will have a shimmering quality unique to pinhole cameras. On the positive side, however, there is infinite depth of field and everything in the picture is equally in (or out of) focus.

The interested reader can explore further and learn about pinhole photography. At this point all you need to know is that it is totally basic, easy to understand and teaches the principles of photography in a way that they will never be forgotten. One learns quickly, for example, that if the camera or subject move during an exposure, the picture will capture that movement and look smeared. The angle of the camera is critical to the framing of the picture: aim too far up, down or to the side and you miss the target. Most of all, you learn that you only get one chance for each shot. After every precious picture, the camera must go back to the darkroom, the result developed, and a contact print made to see one picture, which means that using a pinhole camera makes the photographer very, very careful about every move he makes.

Wiley Sanderson taught photography at the University of Georgia and noticed in the early years that when he made an assignment his students turned in pretty good results, but those who had the means were not coming up with their pictures the same way as those who couldn't afford to shoot up a lot of film. What was happening, he noticed, was that students would take as many pictures as they could afford for an assignment, then sort through them and turn in only the best.

Here is where Sanderson had an educational stroke of genius. Selecting the best shots from a pile of prints was editing, not photography. His aim was to teach photography, so to level the field all his first-year students were required to build and use pinhole cameras. All of them. This meant that it made no difference if you could afford the most expensive manufactured camera. Everyone was starting from square one. The result, he said, was that his students were learning the basics of photography by hands-on experience. They learned that the smaller the opening, the longer the exposure...but the better the focus. They learned to be very selective when they framed the image and pay close attention to light sources, angles and shadows. They discovered that if the pinhole were perfectly drilled the result would be better so sometimes they took great pains to find the tiniest of drill bits and the thinnest of metal to make the critical opening. In short, they were learning everything they needed to know to become photographers, not editors.

In a single afternoon I listened to this man talk and looked at a gallery of his work. There were spectacular images he had made with a pinhole camera. Still lifes, portraits, cityscapes, landscapes, nature photography...both black and white and color. It was an amazing experience for me because it would be several years later that I would get my hands on a camera. When I was listening to Sanderson my experience with photography was the same as with painting, sculpture, music, collecting, or any other expression of creativity... a journey in the mind. I was in no position to really do any of these things, but nothing prevented exercising my imagination. Without knowing it I had been taught in one afternoon all I would ever need to know about photography.

Later, in the Army, I bought an economical but excellent Yashica range-finder and shot roll after roll of 35mm slides and prints. Because I was an x-ray technician I knew about developing, "fixing" and finishing film. I had access to a darkroom for GI's to develop their own film and prints. I was able to put into practice what I had learned from Wiley Sanderson, and I never forgot that valuable learning session in an art gallery years before. By the time I graduated to a Nikon I felt completely at ease taking pictures and took pride looking at a roll of film that only a few had to be tossed because I screwed up.

(My only regret is that I never learned to use a flash. Everything I shoot is available light because that is how I learned to take pictures. A flash may supply enough light to make a technically correct exposure, but I never figured out how to predict where shadows would appear until it was too late. If I had it to do over I wouldn't do anything differently. Technology now delivers the capability to take pictures much better than in the past, and everyone knows the magic of photo shopping.)

I am told that Mr. Sanderson is still alive but not in good health, close to ninety years old. It is a testimony to his imagination and creativity that in his later years he had to have a glass eye made following a bout of eye cancer. According to his daughter he may not remember it now, but with his new eye if he lifted gently on that eyebrow and looked down, the eye also showed his logo. Anyone with that measure of independence and imagination deserves at least a footnote in the internets.

Thanks, Wiley Sanderson, for inspiring me to love and practice making good pictures. In the short space of a few hours you taught me more than I might have learned elsewhere in a year of formal study. If any of your former students happen on this post, I hope they will leave comments and share stories. And if any comments are disrespectful, it is my privilege as blog master to delete such comments.

Wikipedia has a Pinhole Camera article with links.
More on pinhole photography at this link, including a wonderful picture that is at the Smithsonian, taken by a tiny pinhole camera from inside some one's mouth, looking out.
With a film cartridge pinhole camera tucked in his mouth and his finger as a shutter, Justin Quinnell immortalizes his bath.

Have fun! Go learn about pinhole photography.

Highly recommended reading: Pinhole Photography – History, Images, Cameras, Formulas By Jon Grepstad
A comprehensive, clearly written and well-organized site with enough original content and links to keep the reader busy for a long time.


DirkStar said...

I loved this piece and the one about grandmother.

Very fine blog!

I'm going to get my friends to come and visit...

Happy Hanukah!

Anonymous said...


Just ran across your blog while doing a search for Wiley Sanderson... you've snagged a former student of his!

I found this an interesting article and appreciate your posting it to a blog so it will show up quickly in a search. It was listed first on my search.

I first met Wiley Sanderson while studying journalism at Gainesville Junior College about 50 miles north of Athens. It was my second time around as a college student, the first time being an art student at the University of Geogia and not really studying as hard as I should, especially when there was a war going on in Vietnam and the draft still actively seeing lazy students. I wound up serving a few years in the Navy (and Vietnam), learning a valuable lesson in how important studying hard in college should be.

I had recently been given a 35mm camera in my media course ag GJC for some assignments and didn't know one end from the other, but got interested quickly. Since there was no photography course at the college at that time, I signed up for the night course at the Quinlan Art Center in Gainesville. Professor Sanderson was conducting occasional phototography classes there in addition to his duties at the University of Georgia. It was a basic introductory course and I found him to be fascinating. Sort of a quirky personality, but very involved in his profession. I discovered that there was a degree offered through the art school at UGA, so the stars aligned for me to sign up to return there in 1973.

It was then that I encountered his pinhole philosophy. He could be tough on people who thought photography was just a filler course and said that one of his goals was to weed out as many of the slackers as possible from his early classes so he would only have to deal with those who were serious about learning. It was tough, but he was fairminded and I managed to get through the early coursework. When we got into building (and decorating!) our pinhole cameras, I loved it. Lots of detail work and calculations... meticulous study... all before you could begin taking any photos. He ran a tight ship and your darkroom better stay spotlessly clean, or EVERYBODY would have to stay and scrub it up intil it was.

There were a few of us "older" students taking his course, a couple of military veterans like myself who were three or four years older than our fellow students and I think Mr. Sanderson liked working with us. I feel like I was a little closer to him than some of the others because I rented a house from his soon-to-be new wife, Mary Hammond, when I first moved back to Athens with my wife and baby son. It was supposed to just be for the summer while Mr. Sanderson and others studied in Cortona, Italy, but romance blossomed between them and we got to keep the house during the rest of our stay in Athens.

Studying under Professor Wiley Sanderson could be a very stressful venture if you didn't prepare yourself for your assignments. I loved the critique sessions with him and the other advanced students every week. He would give you a No BS evaluation of your work and you definitely learned fast and WELL under his tutelage... IF you could survive the early courses.

Like I said, he was tough, but he was fair and if you didn't learn your craft under him, it was your own fault. You didn't get a lot of slack if you were an advanced student, either. I had made the mistake in my senior year of trying to go for a double major, in Photographic Design and in Graphic Design, and wound up trying to do two Senior Portfolio courses at the same time. Even though the study time was open ended, you still had to perform your research and develop your coursework on time and to your major professor's approvals. I really wound up having to choose between the majors when my work came up short at the end of the course. Luckily for me, Mr. Sanderson allowed me an Incomplete grade and I got a do-over through the summer quarter. I dropped the Graphics major and stuck with the Photographic Design to finally earn my Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 1975. I didn't graduate with my class, but I did learn another valuable lesson and passed my course with flying colors and a deep respect for Professor Sanderson for holding my feet to the fire. You've just got to admire the passion and dedication he has, not only for photography, but especially for his students, and for that I am eternally grateful.

I haven't seen Mr. Sanderson in about three years (this is May 2008) and I heard he was in bad health a couple of years ago. I hope he is still alive and doing well for his age because I still love him for who he is and what he did for me as a student.

Neil Copeland

Hoots said...

What a wonderful addition to this post! I'm not working at the same place now and have lost contact with his daughter but perhaps via the Internet our paths will cross again. I'm sure she would enjoy reading about your experience.

Anonymous said...


Neil Copeland here again. Just wanted to give you an update... a GOOD one! I've been invited to Wiley Sanderson's 90th birthday celebration on August 17, 2008 in Athens, GA.

Just thought you might like to know and I wanted to pass along the good news.


Anonymous said...

This is a grate post. Pinhole photography is lensless photography. A tiny hole replaces the lens. Light passes through the hole; an image is formed in the camera. Pinhole optics, by the way, are not only used in photography. There is one animal in nature which uses a pinhole for seeing – the mollusk nautilus.