When Manfred “Mannie” Buchheit was seven, he received his first camera. It was a gift he received in 1950 just before his family left their home country of France to board a boat destined for North America.
“It had two little rolls of film with it, and I shot them off within a day,” laughed Buchheit.
The longtime Holyrood resident has gone through plenty of rolls of film since then, having learned to develop his own photographs as a teen growing up in Ontario. Buchheit went on to study at the Ontario College of Art and work as a medical graphic artist, but he credits his move to Newfoundland in the early 1970s for really jumpstarting his artistic career as a photographer.
“I love photography — I can’t say enough about it.”
Buchheit is presently the subject of an exhibition on display at The Rooms in St. John’s from now until June dedicated to his fascination with pinhole cameras. Among the earliest photographic techniques ever used, it’s a lens-free form of photography that often involves lengthy exposures captured through a small hole or aperture, resulting in an inverted image on the opposite side of the camera.
Buchheit first started experimenting with pinhole photography in 1977 and has stuck with it ever since. In fact, the show at The Rooms includes the third pinhole camera shot he ever took — a corner building at the intersection of Bell and Henry Street in St. John’s.
Appropriately enough, Buchheit’s exhibition is titled “Corners,” with most shots focusing on the architecture of downtown St. John’s, presented through the unique perspective pinhole photography offers, thus taking an antique technology for documentation into a contemporary setting.
“I just like the look of it, with the softness of it,” he explained, “because it’s not sharp. It’s all soft.”
Over time, Buchheit has modified his technique for pinhole photography. For measuring light, he uses a paper pinhole exposure calculator. In addition to the photos, The Rooms show also has several of his cameras on display, including some that are homemade (one was built with a Fry’s cocoa tin). He prefers to shoot in black and white (and can develop those photos himself), but does work with colour on occasion.
Pinhole photography does rely on trial and error to an extent. Buchheit has found himself returning to a location in order to make a second or third attempt at documenting what he intends to capture.
“There’s always experimentation. If it doesn’t work out, why didn’t it work out? You’ve got to go back and check it out. It’s not like shooting your DSLR and taking a whole whack of shots and then getting that one prime photo. With this system, it’s trial and error — although I’ve gotten to know how the light works and I can almost calculate the exposure by just taking a look.”
With the trial-and-error nature of pinhole photography also comes some happy accidents in terms of the result. One of those Buchheit cites is a shot taken in 1981 at the intersection of Gower and Victoria Street in St. John’s. The artist himself was sitting on the sidewalk as the camera was shooting with an exposure time of 20-to-30 minutes when his friend, painter Don Short, came along and sat with him. The resulting image, also featured at The Rooms, gives the two men an almost ghostly appearance.
“Quite often the subject will move, and being this type of camera, it can’t stop the action,” Buchheit said.
“Corners” exclusively captures downtown St. John’s over the course of a 41-year period, and the artist feels it’s appropriate to have these photos shown at The Rooms.
“You can see any one of these places on a short walk,” he noted. “The thing is, I used to live downtown on Bannerman Street, so this whole area portrayed here is basically where I always walked. I actually like the fact this is about this area of St. John’s.”