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The Poetry of Pinhole Photography

A response to diode Editor Patty Paine’s question, “How does your passion for pinhole photography inform you as a poet, and as an editor?”

          pin·hole cam·er·a

A rudimentary film camera composed of a light-tight container and, in lieu of a lens, a tiny hole in the center of one side. These devices are often homemade, and they can be disguised as common household items such asanimal cracker boxes, books, candy tins, paint cans, spam containers, vintage lunchboxes, etc.

I came to poetry first, and then to editing, and much more recently I discovered pinhole photography, which I adore. Due to this chronology, I’d say that my more literary endeavors inform my newer passion for pinhole photography, but I’m certain they nourish one another.

I’ve long been interested in the relationship between the poem and the moment. While prose oftentimes celebrates a number of moments carefully laced together – a plot – poetry, by nature, has a better capacity to isolate and then to celebrate the moment. Even narrative-driven poems tend to be rooted in something more singular. Moreover, I’ve been told that I’m an imagistic poet, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that I’ve found myself exploring some sort of photography.


Pinhole cameras are not particularly good for capturing portraits. This is because of the necessary prolonged exposure times. In order to properly capture a person or an object, the subject cannot move while the film is exposed via open pinhole. And, depending on a number of factors, including amount of light and film type, the exposure time could fall anywhere between one entire second, which is longer than it seems, to a number of hours. The first time that I saw a pinhole camera, I asked, “Can we take a picture of my dog?” My friend smirked. Anyway, pinhole photography isn’t ideal for portraits.

And, so, I find pinhole photography most exhilarating when I’m looking to capture inanimate objects. But, I’m not necessarily interested in taking a picture of something simply because it is ornate, detailed, etc. Besides, even an iPhone would do a much better job of showcasing the delicate frills or brilliant orange hue of a California Poppy, for example. Moreover, at home, we only develop black and white film; color chemistry is much more difficult. (We also like black and white better.)

In short, I look for subjects that can’t move and ones that won’t be disappointed by the rudimentary technology of the lens-less pinhole camera. Recently, I’ve photographed found objects, such as board game pieces discarded in yards by neighborhood children; the Russian dolls my great grandmother gifted to me decades ago; halved but uneaten fruit on the kitchen table; and anything else that might suggest some sort of story despite the stillness of the moment. And, I think the graininess and imperfections of the finished product render a timelessness, which I find both comforting and inspirational.

Sometimes I consider landscapes, too. You can capture landscapes with a pinhole camera, but I struggle to look at one without considering it as a setting. Every place has a story, right?

Although I’m much newer to photography than I am to poetry, my passion for pinhole photography has already informed my poetry. I’ve been prompted to revisit and to craft more object poems, which are about the objects at hand …but also about something much larger and more complex than the subjects proper. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Charles Simic’s “Fork,” “Knife,” and “Spoon”;

  • Thomas Lux’s  “Refrigerator, 1957”;

  • Li Young Lee’s “Persimmons”;

  • Robert Pinsky’s “The Want Bone”;

  • and, of course, William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

If not about something more than the literal objects, these pieces would be nothing more than product descriptions, right? When it comes to both pinhole photography and to poetry, I’m not interested in what’s absolute and explicit unless, perhaps, it’s in terms of an objective correlative.


These sentiments nourish my editorial endeavors, as well. At Petite Hound Press we publish a piece of writing paired deliberately with a work of visual art. It is our mission to never pair a poem and a piece of writing in a heavy-handed way.

We leave the reader to ask in which ways the writing is similar to the visual art, in which ways the two are different from one another, so on and so forth. And, of course, upon discovery, we hope that the audience might engage and ask, “What is the meaning of this?”

Petite Hound Press ISSUE 2, for example, was inspired by the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition, Pop Departures. More specifically, ISSUE 2 was inspired by the work of American artist Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip style. Rather than creating a parody of the talented Matt Dennison’s “Anti-Vivisectionist” and Christopher Woods’ photography, however, we took these works – complete on their own – and merged them together so that juxtaposition and complementation might create something new. For example, might we visualize the subject of vivisection, love, as a carousel rabbit? What is the forlorn teenager in the corndog booth contemplating? Why are the bright-colored boats empty, and in what ways are they “just like us,” a phrase by Dennison? These are only some of our questions of course. 

Let’s consider one more example. ISSUE 12 explores the concept of reliquaries. Traditionally, these revered containers depict narrative scenes from the lives of the saints they embody. However, in ISSUE 12, Judith Lloyd’s domestic-themed poem, “Reliquary,” paired with Laura Spreitzer’s photograph, one of an 11.5 inch unmarked plastic Barbie doll, call to mind something quite different.


Lately, I’ve had a number of fellow editors and writers as well as family members and friends ask me why I edit. It’s almost a compulsion, really. I edit because I want to give back to the literary community. I’d be lost without the poets I met during my time with Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA program, the writers I know through organizations such as the Peter Murphy Writing of Stockton University program, and others. Their companionship, energy, and excellence are invaluable to who I am and also to my continual efforts to become the writer – and the human! – that I want to be.

Moreover, I edit Petite Hound Press because I feel a strong responsibility to reclaim poetry for the nonpoet. I didn’t come to poetry until I was in my mid twenties – in fact, I never took a creative writing class as an undergraduate – and poetry came to me during an important time. I was struggling through a divorce and, at the time, I was working as a Certified Veterinary Technician; the emotional toll of assisting with euthanasia’s had become overwhelming. Then, my stepfather died. It felt like one thing after another.

Right around that time, I found a box of books from my ex’s brother who had moved to Japan. He had left dozens of contemporary poetry collections, and then my ex left them, too, when he moved out. I fell in love with the work of Li-Young Lee, Donald Hall, Mary Jo Bang, Fiona Sampson, Jim Harrison, and many others including Renée Ashley, who would come to be my thesis mentor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. These collections helped me make sense of my world during a difficult time. The significance isn’t lost on me: most likely, I never would have discovered poetry, which is, today, a defining factor of my identity, if I hadn’t made the mistake of marrying the wrong man.

And, so, before I was a poet, I was a nonpoet who adored poetry. Poetry had been reclaimed for me. But not everyone will stumble upon a treasure’s worth of poetry left behind by their ex husband at the right time and in the right place.

I’d be lying, of course, if I were to imply that editing is a completely selfless endeavor. I do it for the money. No. I’m kidding. In fact, one of my dear friends and classmates from my MFA program once said that our MFAs in poetry were actually PhDs in Unicorn Grooming, and this still makes me chuckle. Who doesn’t love a good unicorn?

Seriously, though, I edit because, not unlike writing poetry, it is an art in its own right: from word/art pairings to editor’s notes. Moreover, serving as an editor undoubtedly pushes me to be a better and better poet myself. For example, as an Associate Poetry Editor with The Literary Review, I am (happily) forced to look at the slush pile on an almost-daily basis. And, through my duties as the Online Managing Editor of The Literary Review, I’m constantly exposed to poetry both from our Archives, Re-Features from other literary magazines, and also via Book Reviews. I’m truly immersed in poetry, and to be a writer, we must read.

Moreover, my less traditional literary project, Petite Hound Press, has forced me to think more deeply about poetry . . . to approach the meaning of it all in a way that seems, to me, most like the curator of an exhibit at an art museum. I need to contemplate the connections between poetry and visual art; twice a month, my Co-Editor, Letisia Cruz, and I must articulate some semblance of this for each bimonthly issue’s Editors’ Note. Because I am drawn, both as a writer and a reader, to imagistic poetry, these studies are particularly invaluable to my own craft.

Returning to the topic of photography, pinhole camerawork brings me closer to the subject matter. Even my lensless camera was made at home by my own hands, and I develop my own film, too. There’s a tangibility, a palpability, that I adore. Similarly, editing brings me closer to poetry, and it brings me closer to the literary community, as well. Writers have long been saying that writing is both a solitary act and yet it is not solitary at all. I couldn’t agree more.  


Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, essayist, and adjunct professor. Her poetry has been published by or is forthcoming in Pleiades, The Normal School, and Whiskey Island among other publications. Her chapbook manuscript was named a semifinalist in the 2014 Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook competition, her poetry has been twice nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and she was awarded the Spain 2015 Murphy Writing scholarship. Heather, a Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA graduate, is an editor for both The Literary Review and Petite Hound Press, and she will serve as an AWP16 moderator/panelist. Learn more at www.heatherlangwrites.com.