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Moira McDonald: Pinhole Photographer

Knowledge is power.  Having a thorough understanding of why you are doing what you are doing is important.  Moira McDonald strikes me as an individual who knows where she wants to be, knows what she needs to do to get there and above all has a passion for what she is doing.  Whether it is hiking miles to plant her hidden pinhole cameras or teaching students at the Harvey Milk Photo Center, the dedication is there.  And one has to give respect to someone so dedicated.

To see more of Moira's work go to and follow her on instagram @moiracore.  And to see where her cameras are located CLICK HERE

Moira McDonald logs in her quardinates during a routine hike for camera installs.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Your current body of work explores the effects of radiation along the coast of California.  What has been a challenge in trying to document something that cannot be photographed?

This entire project has been a challenge! After a year of thinking, logistical problem solving and research, I finally began photographing in January 2014. Everything from finding a process which would allow me time in my photographs, to the logistics of how I would make cameras and where I would place them- each element of this project required its own piece of mind.

Once I discovered the process of solargraphy, which solarizes the image onto black and white darkroom paper and allows for lengthy time exposures, I was able to begin fine tuning the rest of my ideas around that process.

Beyond the photographic image I intended to create, I also wanted to record the natural elements over time, I made the cameras out of untreated plywood, which is essentially porous and allows for moisture to be absorbed into the camera and onto the paper negative. The shape of the camera proved to be a challenge, because I wanted them to survive time, so their camouflage would be important. The shape of birdhouses seemed like a natural fit as they are present but not overly so- I wanted the cameras to look like basic utilitarian birdhouses, nothing fancy, something the park service or Audubon Society might put out. Something people would see but not see at the same time.

'Along the Dog Fence' January, 1987 Polaroid Photograph, 2007.  Photo © Moira McDonald

You have this connection to nature throughout your work.  Has this tendency always existed?  And why is it there? 

Nature hasn’t been ever present so specifically. Thematically my earlier work revolved around the idea of home, and relationship with place. Directly influenced by my life as an immigrant, those earlier bodies of work were important for me to work through. However, I’m confident that there are blatant references to my affection for the natural world throughout all of my images.

McDonald removes the small piece of tape that protects the film inside until permanent install and it's multi day exposure.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Currently you are taking on the task of placing pinhole cameras throughout the coast around the Bay Area.  What have you learned in this beginning stage of such a large-scale project?

I have cameras up throughout the World War II battery network surrounding the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, though my interest in utilizing these locations in this project was sparked when I realized that there was a WWII Nike Missile Site around the corner from my current home in the coastal suburbs of San Francisco. All of these locations have been picked as vantage points, as places to witness and survey potential oncoming threats. Now as modern relics, I thought these locations to be appropriate for my method of surveillance of time.

Because of my novice using this process I have learned a lot over the past 6 months of shooting, most palatably, leaving my homemade cameras to the mercy of both the public and nature. It has been a real process in letting go. Its always a thrill to find the cameras again- it always feels like the odds are against them so just getting them back is satisfying. Actually recovering images from these little boxes has brought heightened the element of magic in the image making process for me.

'Pier with Gull' from Pictures of Home Polaroid Photograph, 2009.  Photo © Moira McDonald

McDonald stands along a hillside admiring the view and the rolling hills of fog coming in from off the shore in Pacifica.  Photo © Aimee Santos

'Cypress at Night with Lights and Fog' from Pictures of Home Polaroid Photograph, 2010.  Photo © Moira McDonald

Accompanied by Charlie her animal companion, McDonald prepares to install a pinhole camera in a tree.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Charlie, your dog is always with you.  Do you feel the act of placing your cameras would be missing something if there weren’t this life shadowing you as you work?  Is it possible that he is part of the process of creating without leaving a documentation of his presence?

My life with Charlie is fluid and constant. He is a rescued Border Collie/ Australian Cattle Dog mix who is smart as a whip and has residual and intense separation anxiety thanks to the neglect of his previous home. I keep him with me most of the time because he needs the company and as a preventative measure because he becomes destructive when he is alone. With that being said, Charlie has been constantly with me for six years and its impossible to disprove that the life we have together exploring California through hikes and camping trips hasn’t affected my work.

Through the recession, I made a living as a dog walker in Marin County and then again in Pacifica. This job afforded me a place to bring Charlie every day, as well as free headspace to think- it was a natural progression for me to start researching and informing myself about the places I was going every day. The body of work “Ephemeral Interventions” is the culmination of my experience and research during that time.

My most recent work is the perfect fusion of my life and art. I am finally outside making images in the places that have informed me for so long, and of course, Charlie is by my side. I joke that this work is Char’s favorite so far, but it’s the truth, he gets several good hikes in per image, which makes for a happy dog.

'White Horse with Twister' from Ephemeral Interventions Polaroid Photograph, 2012.  Photo © Moira McDonald

You were very crafty at using royalty free imagery online but have now switched to straight pinhole photography.  What are you gaining from this transition that the use of online imagery could not give you?

I have always worked in both traditional photography and with appropriated images. As a concept based maker, I try and use the medium that makes sense for the concept behind the work.

The two bodies of work I have made using appropriated images, “Along the Dog Fence” and “Ephemeral Interventions” were both grappling with making photographs of the unphotographable. “Along the Dog Fence” is a collection of memories using Creative Commons licensed images sourced from the Internet. “Ephemeral Interventions” was a collection of digital collage using images found in the same manner focusing on creating pictures of fleeting natural happenings. With that being said, my newest body of work is the first time I am exploring the unphotographable utilizing traditional photographic methods.

With the use of her cell phone and hand written data log McDonald keeps track of every location she has a camera.  Photo © Aimee Santos

'Swimmers with Geese' from Ephemeral Interventions Polaroid Photograph, 2012.  Photo © Moira McDonald

What are your thoughts towards the constantly changing rules being applied to royalty free imagery or even online imagery today?  Where do you think it is headed?

The momentum of the Creative Commons Database is growing and has become an irreplaceable resource for artists. I see it continuing to grow, and reputably so, as more and more official and National image databases world wide upload and include their libraries to the Database. The Library of Congress, for instance, is housing their images there to be available to artists, that in and of itself is a wealth of visual information.

I am concerned, though, with the theft culture of the internet- everything on your screen can now be grabbed or screen shot- and it makes for a lot of grey areas regarding copyrights. Entire businesses, especially in photography, are being falsified using entirely stolen images.

With the Internet’s database as a whole ever growing, I see both the positive and negative of this access growing exponentially. Along with theft culture being engrained in the Internet, providing free access to information and media is also a palpable part of that same culture- perhaps it’s a case of good outweighing bad.

McDonald installs a pinhole camera shaped like a birdhouse on a tree in Pacifica.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Your pinhole cameras are posing as birdhouses but they are only holding a 4x4 sheet of Ilford paper.  Do you think you could mask a larger camera if it was something different, not a birdhouse?

I could make cameras at any size, really. The larger size didn’t seem necessary for this project. I could see myself utilizing this method in different ways in the future where larger negatives could be more important.

'Accumulations'  37.82615,-122.499855, March 12- April 7, 2014, Paper Negative, 2014.  Photo © Moira McDonald

Charlie runs free but always at a distance where he can see or hear McDonald.  Photo © Aimee Santos

'Accumulations' 37.639142,-122.481291, Feb 21-March 14, 2014, Paper Negative, 2014.  Photo © Moira McDonald

What challenges have you encountered with ‘Accumulations’ in regards to public intervention?  And does the final outcome of a tampered birdhouse result in a destroyed image or a happy accident?

I have had cameras moved, stolen and broken. The happiness of the accident isn’t consistent, though I can appreciate these cameras having their own experiences. I try my best to hide the cameras as much as possible to prevent theft but also to prevent the park rangers from becoming privy to my cameras, as I haven’t been working with permits. I also try not to put cameras too close to each other for the same reasons.

The inspiration for McDonald's birdhouses came from right outside her window at her home in Pacifica.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Can you speak about the Collective that you are involved in and what the primary goal is between all of these artists?

Pseudo Studio is essentially a group of mostly CCA graduates who each have different skills, which serves in several ways. We have had numerous art exhibitions showcasing the active members, but also utilize each other in professional circumstances and projects as well. My roles in the group is as a photographer so I have shown with the studio, curated shows, photographed projects for other artists and have been a point person for graphic design and general photographic needs. Other members work in wood, architecture, metal and product design. We have done everything together from creating an inflatable gallery for the Maker Faire to showcasing at San Francisco Design Week. Over the past several years the studio has also functioned as a custom furniture and interior design business, allowing members to sub contract with the business for commercial projects.

I actively recommend any creative person to build an active network with other artists. You are only as big as your network.

'Along the Dog Fence' October 1989 Polaroid Photograph, 2007.  Photo © Moira McDonald

McDonald shows the end result of her birdhouse cameras, which is a 4"x4" sheet of black and white printing paper mainly used for wet lab printing.  This time, however, exposed to the sun's rays over a period of days has become solarized.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You currently work at the Harvey Milk Photo Center in San Francisco and have worked with at risk youth in the past. Everyone who has worked with teens has learned something new, from what I hear.  What have they taught you in regards to learning photography?  And have you incorporated any new mindset because of them?

I have been working with teenagers, and youth in general, on and off for the past 13 years and I love it. Teaching photography at Harvey Milk to teenagers has been a real highlight of all of the education and youth work I have done so far. Teenagers bring energy to everything they do and I find them to be uniquely powerful. Many of the teens I work with don’t associate the dark room with photography so there is an extra level of magic and with that, they often spark hyper enthusiasm for the process and the medium. Their enthusiasm is undeniably infectious and my teen photography course quickly became a feeder for membership to the Photo Center, which is essentially a public darkroom.

McDonald prepares one of her pinhole cameras for install.  Photo © Aimee Santos

The first thing I do with the teens is photographing with pinhole cameras and paper negatives. This is a lesson in slowing down for them, and in the basics of photography- that it is the recording of light and time, not of reality, as most tend to assume. This assignment is designed to contrast their experiences coming from instant digital images and introduce them to the darkroom. But, it is also apparent that this assignment in particular has informed the process I have found myself exploring.