Interview: James Guerin of Reality So Subtle Pinhole Cameras
For the month of July, we're bringing the pinhole into focus at Analog Forever. For these long, hazy, summer days we'll be looking at some long, hazy, exposures made on what are, conceptually, the most basic of cameras. In advance of our next online exhibition of pinhole imagery curated by Nils Karlson, we're checking in with James Guerin, manufacturer of Reality So Subtle pinhole cameras, and the generous sponsor of the exhibition. One lucky photographer included in the “Camera Obscura” group exhibition will be awarded a Reality So Subtle 6x6F medium format pinhole camera.
On that note: photographer, gearhead, tinkerer, and all-around analog nut, Erik Mathy, was just the person to talk to James about the joys and trials of developing, manufacturing, and shooting with these amazing little machines and share his personal experiences shooting with the 6x6F camera.
Erik writes: For most photographers the words "pinhole camera" summons visions of oatmeal cans, tinfoil, and a safety pin. A few rare birds among us may think of more formal arrangements: self made specialist cameras, pinhole lens caps sold for DSLRs or maybe small run industrial affairs like the Harman Titan 4x5 pinhole camera.
But there are other options out there which defy expectations. The Reality So Subtle (RSS) 6x6F is one of those. Built on the coast of France by mechanical engineer James Guerin, the 6x6F absolutely oozes quality. The fit and finish are remarkable. The small touches like classic radio volume dials for the film advance/rewind are both well thought out and functional. I reached out to James at his home in France to learn more about the man, the manufacturer, the photographer behind the camera...
Erik Mathy: Look at the camera and calmly state your name, what you do, and how long you've been doing it!
James Guerin: My names is James Guerin and I make pinhole cameras. I've been doing it for about fourteen years, but doing it as my primary source of income since 2013.
EM: You started Reality So Subtle in 2013. How did that come to pass? And at a time when things were in many ways bleak for film-based photography, why did you decide to take that risk?
JG: I had no choice really. When we moved to France in 2011 my French was very limited and I found it impossible to find a job in my field (mechanical engineer). After two years of doing intermittent jobs and the constant setbacks of trying to find a job that suited my qualifications and experience I made the leap and started my home business of making pinhole cameras. It was the only thing I was interested in doing really and it was the only thing I could think of that could bring in some money. My wife had a good job and she was carrying the family.
I started with the 6×17 camera and the line up has grown from there to nine different cameras. I really love what I do. It hasn't been easy, but it has been very rewarding. The first two years were a white knuckle ride! I never thought that things were bleak for film photography... so many of my contacts were passionately shooting film.
EM: Pinholes? Whhhhhaaaaaaaaat??? Why?!?!?!? (Also, dude...the laser drilled pinholes are incredible. Tell us more about how that came to be vs more traditional means of making them.)
JG: Pinholes, because that's what I was into. I love pinhole photography. It allows you to be present in your environment as you're not disconnected in the way that you can be with a modern camera with all the bells and whistles. There's no separation that looking into a viewfinder brings. There's more of a connection to your surroundings when shooting pinhole. It's therapeutic.
I went with laser drilled pinholes because I wanted ultimate quality and consistency. They can be made very well by hand, but I didn't want this added step in my process as I have enough to worry about. Having a nearby scientific company here in France make them for me suits me better. I mount the tiny apertures on another larger flexible disc before using them in my cameras or shipping them out to customers so that folks can make their own cameras.
EM: Your cameras are made with a fair bit of manual labor and it shows. There is a craft, an attention to detail which is remarkable. I've read in an interview that your shop includes a CNC machine with some automation while your original tool of choice was a scroll saw. To me this shows a progression in how you make your cameras. What is next in that path? Many people are turning to high(er)-end 3D printers, for example. Is that something you've considered or are considering? If not, then what are you considering doing?
JG: Yes I'm using a CNC router. It's nothing special, but I can load a sheet and press go and then do something else while the machine cuts all the pieces for one or more cameras. I used to do this part with the scroll saw, but as the orders started building this quickly became tedious. Two days of my week is spent with the CNC machine running, and the rest is all assembly and shipping.
I keep an eye on 3D printing and it's getting more and more interesting to me. I think I'll probably upgrade my CNC router before I get a 3D printer. Having a 4th axis (turning station) on the CNC router is really going to push me along. For now I have a manual lathe where I am turning parts but doing this on the CNC as well would be cool. A combination of 3D printed parts and CNC cut parts might be ideal.
EM: Pinhole cameras are wonderful in their simplicity. This is not only from a shooting standpoint, but also from a manufacturing standpoint. I can see why, as a one man shop, making pinhole cameras would be very attractive. But your personal work shows a tendency to create far more complex cameras. Have you ever considered making a camera or product other than a pinhole based one? And if so, what was the ultimate factor that has kept you from doing so?
JG: Yes, I have considered it, and I may yet do so. The major factor stopping me doing that is lenses. Making a lensed camera that is any good pretty much means using an existing lens, but I have some ideas and I might do something in the future. I am not ruling out making my own lenses, either.
My cameras might seem complex compared to traditional pinhole cameras but that is really only because I like to include 'rise' pinholes so the user has the option of the equivalent of a 'shift' adjustment as used in large-format view cameras.
EM: There has been a resurgence in traditional "analog" photography over the last decade, particularly in the younger generation. Why do you think that is? And how do we keep that trend either going or at least stable enough to sustain?
JG: I don't know. But I suppose I am doing my bit. I suppose young people like film cameras for the same reasons the rest of us do: the feel and sound of them; the fact that you have to wait for your pictures and you are not led along a path by the previous image on an LCD screen.
I'd like to see some new film cameras coming out.There's plenty of pinhole camera makers out there, and that's great, but I'd love to see some new lensed cameras too, and some new films, or at least keep the existing ones.
EM: While that (the analog resurgence) hasn't kept some companies from slowly but surely leaving the film market entirely it has created an interesting upswing in small niche companies. Yourself, Film Washi, and the Aerochrome Source come to mind. If you were going to give advice to someone who wants to start that kind of enterprise, what would it be?
JG: If you've got a good product or idea that you believe in, I would say go for it. I would say do it on the side as much as you can. I started small and invested bit by bit. I started with a few manual machines, then invested in the CNC. Of course there are other models that work and bigger investments need to be made up front. If the product is in demand and makes sense then it can work, but the product needs to be something people want. If you don't have that to begin with it's not going to work.
EM: For you, personally, what kind of images do you enjoy making?
JG: I really enjoy making experimental images with newly created cameras or testing out new designs. That gets me excited. I love shooting my slit-scan camera, as taking photos with that is all about preparation and trying to predict whats going to happen and where. Even then you
never really know what you're gonna get. I like to be surprised when I develop my film.
I really enjoy making cyanotype prints too, something I only started about a year ago.
If I was going out with a regular or pinhole camera, I like to just wander around and discover new places, be it in a city or in the countryside. It doesn't even matter if I don't come home with something, it's the experience that I appreciate more and more. When I started out photographing I would 'hunt' images, but I'm more relaxed about it now.
EM: I've also seen some really technically intense cameras on your personal Instagram account...a 8x10 with 30 element lens array and slit-scan cameras, to name two. Given your druthers, if you could make a camera for yourself that you've never made before, what would that camera be?
JG: I'd like to make a rotating lens 6x17 camera with a rise and fall. I also want to re-make my multi-cell lens camera (the one with 30 lenses) to make it lighter and simpler. I learned a lot from the first one and there are a few simplifications and other modifications I need to make.
EM: Where can Analog Forever Magazine’s audience find you online?
The RSS 6x6F: Notes from the Field, aka The Street Photographer's Pinhole?
While working on this interview with James I took the opportunity to take the 6x6F camera from my personal collection out for a spin. I've already mentioned how beautiful it is as a piece of machinery, but how well does it work?
To load the film you start at the top, literally. Two screws are undone to remove the top of the camera. There is a small tab to one side to help the action as the rest of the top is flush and light sealed. Inside the camera there two compartments, one on either side. The two 120 film reels simply slide down into those and...that's it. The camera top goes back on, you advance the film to 1 and you're ready to go.
Shooting with the 6x6fFis remarkably easy. It's lightweight, easy to handle and requires little time to set up. Unlike many pinholes, the 6x6F also accepts a filter, hence the "F" in its moniker. A standard 52mm filter screws right on enabling the use of everything from standard black and white filters to specialty items like an Infrared R72. There is a simple shutter on the front of the camera, and the usual red window on the back to keep track of your exposures.
When it comes time to make images the vertical and horizontal angles of view are clearly marked on the body. There is also a spirit level embedded on the top of the camera. Personally I tend to use a dark card to block the pinhole before opening the shutter. Then the dark card gets moved to expose the film without camera shake. Reverse the process, wind the film forward, and you're ready for the next shot. It's remarkably simple, easy, and fast.
Which brings me to the other great part of the RSS 6x6F: The pinhole itself. James has his pinholes laser drilled for accuracy and cleanliness. With pinholes a clean, perfectly round opening is key to sharp images. In this, the 6x6F does exceptionally well. Additionally, the 6x6F aperture is f/160. With 50asa film in bright sunlight, that results in a 3 second exposure. For a pinhole camera that's a pretty fast exposure. If you shoot any faster film, such as 400asa, you'll want to have some neutral density filters on hand to tame the ambient light.
The 6x6F's light weight, easy handling, excellent controls and fast (for a pinhole) shutter speed made it something I have never expected from a pinhole camera: An excellent street photography tool. Being a pinhole you have to get close, of course. Very close. But if you do, then the RSS 6x6F, like fortune, will favor the brave and make some exceptional images.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Mathy is a photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the subject of an upcoming documentary film following him as he bicycles from San Francisco to Tuscon, documenting life along the historic Butterfield Overland Mail Route with a Speed Graphic camera and his handmade Dollar Bill lenses. Connect with Erik Mathy on his Website and on Instagram!