The tiniest openings can be grand gateways.
That's what you will see when you view the images displayed in "Through the Pinhole," the newest exhibition at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination on Penn Avenue in Garfield.
Guest curator Sue Abramson has assembled works from a dozen photographers who have gone beyond traditional photography to embrace a mind-bending, thought-provoking, conversation-starting form of the art.
"We're dedicated to the view that anything's possible," said Sheila Ali, director of the center, which opened in 2007 and began holding exhibitions in 2009. "We try to encourage people to use their imagination."
The center hosts about six shows a year. The pinhole photography exhibit begins with a grand opening tonight and runs through Sept. 7.
"They're very small, very sharp, very detailed photographs," Ms. Ali said of the exhibit. "They're like the old-style cameras, where you have to put one piece of film in the box, take the box into the darkroom, develop the paper, and then see what you get."
In this case, the creation of the camera is part of the artistic process. Manipulation of the photographic paper adds another element, creating unusual effects.
Ms. Abramson, a Squirrel Hill photographer and a member of the faculty at Pittsburgh Filmmakers since 1987, was a natural choice for this unnatural project as she has experience with pinhole photography and knew the local photographers she invited to submit work.
"Most people think of photography as being documentary, realistic, everything sharp. It's made with a machine," she said. "But pinhole photography is pretty much the opposite. It's a different way of describing your subject matter. It can be very surreal. It's an interpretation of your subject as opposed to a direct reading."
"With pinhole photography you don't actually use a lens to make a photograph. You just have a hole that is extremely small that allows the light to pass through and projects on the back of the camera, where it exposes on film or paper.
"The cameras can be handmade or store-bought. A lot of people use them because they like the look of it. It's more dream-like. And you can tailor-make your camera so, let's say you have a curved-back that gives you undulating curves in your photograph."
The cameras, she said, come in many shapes and sizes, as long as they fit the criteria of being dark boxes with pinholes.
"One photographer used a refrigerator box so she could get inside and actually see what was projected," Ms. Abramson said. "There's no viewfinder, so most people don't know what they're getting. There's a lot of chance involved.
"Some of this stuff takes a long time to figure out. You have to do a lot of experimentation until you get something that you like. And you don't have total control, which is something that I like. You have to sort of give in to the photographic gods."
But introducing chance into the artistic process also can be frustrating, she said.
"Sometimes things happen that really excite you, and then you try to continue doing it. You do have a lot of failures, but when you do have something work it's really pretty cool."
Artists included in this show are Allen Benson, Bryan Conley, Chad Djubek, Alex Gelatt, Elizabeth Raymer Griffin, Julie Gonzalez, Laura Jean Kahl, Karen Kaighin, Mandy Kendall, Bob Kubiak, Christina Labrise, and Sarah Shank.
Each of them has mastered traditional photography -- and then challenged themselves with this level.
"They seemed to gravitate to a more experimental, hands-on approach," said Ms. Abramson, who will be teaching an experimental camera class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in the fall. "It reflects a different way of looking at the world. It's a little more expressive and more interpretive.
"Some people really still like to use their hands. They make the camera, develop film in the dark room. It's more do-it-yourself style and not so much relying on technology. They like the craft aspect.
"There's also a little bit of a performance element, because there are people in the show who are doing self-portraits. So they have to figure out where they're going to be shot, and figure out the camera and then get in front of the camera."
Tonight's opening, from 7 to 10 p.m., is part of Garfield's Unblurred First Fridays. Musicians Michael Johnsen and Daryl Fleming will perform during the show, which is free and open to the public.
The center also will be offering a pinhole photography class for kids 7 to 13 years old from Aug. 13 through 17.
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe, go to http://old.post-gazette.com/trypress/