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Lens-less in Las Cruces, part 2

'Why' is a better question than 'How' when it comes to starting a travel blog. But let's say you have your reasons, and you aren't particularly interested in competing with the postcard industry. Must you get a camera despite your inclinations? That was the question I went off to ponder at a coffee shop in Las Cruces some years ago. Could a travel blogger really be so uncompromising as to expect readers to live without any eye candy?

It was a pleasant coffee shop with the usual paintings and photographs on the wall, which I seldom pay much attention to. But I did today. There was something unusual about the photographs. The photographer was a professor at a local college and was a member of a sub-culture that was trying to revive the pinhole camera. (aka camera obscura.)

You remember from your grade school days when a soothsayer prophesied a solar eclipse of the sun, and your teachers knew that some idiot would look at it regardless of their warnings, so they had you poke a hole in a patch of aluminum foil mounted in the front of an overturned cardboard box. On the other side of the box you taped a white screen. And there the solar orb diminished to a crescent flame right in front of your safely protected eyes: a clear, sharp image formed by a hole.

To this day this seems a bit magical to me. Most optical equipment, including your eye, uses a curved lens, mirror, or diaphragm. With just a hole and an electronic detector (or film) you could take excellent photos of bright landscapes in the West, and you do need a lot of light -- that is the pinhole camera's main limitation. But it is superior to glass lenses in its depth of field.

What a noble idea pinhole photography in New Mexico was. It turned the great horror of the Southwest, the sun, into an advantage. It turned the camera from an annoying contraption into an extension of the landscape that it was trying to photograph, in the same way that Spanish architecture emphasizes interior atriums and dark rooms with small windows. (Recall that our word camera just comes from the Latin for chamber or room.)

In this type of photography you needn't debase light by passing it through some smudgy meniscus of vile glassy material. Just think, an image without materials, an image based only on geometry. Ahh there's something that Plato could have loved. A beautiful photograph formed by a hole, a nothingness, is something that the Buddha would have liked. (It's not for nothing that Isaac Newton invented a telescope that used a mirror, instead of a lens, as the "objective lens.")

There was enough momentum in this inspiration to carry me beyond pinhole photography and make me recant of my long resentment against cameras in general. And so I bought my first digital Brownie, and went off to discover how good a camera is at making me slow down and
appreciate the funkiness of New Mexico.

This is my favorite sort of experience while traveling: watching the chemistry of time and place cause some kind of change in the traveler. The limiting case of that is a 'Saul on the road to Damascus' type experience, whose sweetness I have finally begun to appreciate.


Ed said…
You have whetted my appetite for the digital camera that I have on my wish list. But on the wish list it must remain for a bit longer until finances recover.
Gee Ed I'm not sure I was trying to be a camera salesman!