Most photographers spend thousands of dollars on sophisticated equipment that contains only the most updated features and functionalities of the digital age. Heather Palecek spends barely a fraction of this, creating her own equipment from nothing more than an old tin and some 35mm film.
While some would deem Paelcek’s method to be out-of-the-ordinary, it’s actually just that–the most ordinary, stripped-down and longstanding form of photography to exist, dating back over 100 years to the 1850s.
The 35-year-old brushed her long, blonde hair from her face, eyes widening as she described the peculiar phenomenon known as “Pinhole photography,” a form of photo art that breaks down traditional cameras as we know them to their simplest properties, requiring nothing more than a light-proof box with a hole punched through it and 35mm film placed inside. As light is absorbed, an inverted image is then created on the film within the tin, capturing the scene that surrounds it.
“Its simplicity—makes photography feel very magical,” Palecek said, “because you can take just a recycled tin out of the garbage and poke a hole in it and you're like, ‘I have a camera.’ That's so fun.”
A LIFE OF ART
Working as a high school photography teacher in Montgomery County, the Trenton-based photographic artist hadn’t always known that art would become such a vital part of her life and self-discovery process.
Raised in the mountains of Sussex County, New Jersey, Palecek had what she described to be a very normal fondness of her school’s art classes growing up, but never in such a way that pushed her toward professional artistic aspirations.
That is, until she took her first dark room photography class in high school.
“I didn't realize before I took the class, how much I enjoyed photography. But I would say that that dark room photo class changed my life forever,” Palecek said, blushing with excitement. “That was the first time that I felt that I had found something I was passionate about and something I wanted to continue pursuing…Up until that point in my life, I didn't really have a strong passion or, one specific thing I really loved.”
By the age of just 16, she then knew for the first time what she wanted to do with her life–teach photography.
Striving to bring her artistic dreams to life, Palecek went on to attend Montclair State University in 2004, where she would receive her bachelors in photography and fine arts education. During her time as a student, Palecek became highly involved in fine-art photography and discovered a passion for conceptual artwork.
Although much of her journey as a student-photographer revolved around analog work, it was during her years at Montclair that she first discovered pinhole photography. Having never taken a class on the subject, but remaining increasingly intrigued by the concept, Palecek did her own research and went on to purchase her first pinhole camera from a B&H photos catalog in 2007.
The seemingly-ancient art required a bit more practice than Palecek had time for as a student, and it quickly took a backseat to her other projects, only rearing its head from time-to-time, when she brought the cameras along to experiment with on vacations and small trips.
A LACK OF CONNECTION
Following her years at Montclair, Palecek moved to Trenton and began teaching high school photography at Montgomery High School in 2010—the same year she went on to open her family photography business, where she specialized in portrait and small-celebration photography.
After several years in the digital photography business, Palecek found herself becoming uninspired. “I felt more connected to my work when I was working in a dark room with my hands and off of the computer and I was missing that,” she said
Continuing to experiment with pinhole on the side, she began to rediscover her initial passions for art through the hyper creative, hands-on process, and it quickly found its place at the front and center of her artistic world. Integrating this long-lost passion with her love of teaching only further encouraged and inspired her professional work.
“After a few years of teaching pinhole photography to my students and seeing the magic in their eyes when they first learned how a pinhole camera works reinvigorated that magic for me,” Palecek said.“
EXPANDING HER ARTWORK
In 2017, Palecek began her official journey as a pinhole photographer, continually experimenting with new forms of photographic art that would soon become staples in her creative career–such as solargraphy, an alternative form of pinhole photography.
According to Palecek, solargraphy remains consistent with the pinhole structure, but requires far more patience.
Traditional pinhole uses 35mm film placed inside of a tin, where light shines through the tin’s hole, creating an image on the film to later be developed in a darkroom.
“I could take a pinhole camera and just, like, sit it on a rock…with pinhole images, sometimes your exposure is like four minutes long. So, I put a timer on and then just, like, sit there and experience what's in front of me.”
Solargraphy, on the other hand, uses darkroom photo paper and requires no photo lab development. Instead, it develops images naturally, through extended periods of light exposure, imprinting an image onto the photo paper.
Extreme heat or freezing temperatures, along with other environmental factors, like wind and rain, can affect the negative inside the camera, but, for Palecek, that’s the fun of the process–alongside the months of anticipation, waiting for these unique images to be created.
“I take these cameras and I hike out into the woods, and then I tape them to a tree and leave them on it, exposing for many months, sometimes multiple years,” she said. “And the camera is just continuously absorbing the light that's coming into it and creating an image of what's in front of it–but also of the sun passing by every single day.”
In order to keep track of her creations, Palecek pins each camera’s location on google maps, venturing into the woods sometimes years later to retrieve them.
As both, a photographic artist and environmentalist, Palecek has found great joy in the collaborative process that solargraphy provides with Mother Nature, focusing much of her work around this relationship. With the creation of every unique image, she has learned, over time, to release herself from full dictation of her artwork and let nature take the reins.
“I have learned so much patience, just in my life. I'm a more patient person from pursuing these projects, and I've also learned to let go of control,” Palecek said. “I used to be really controlling with what I wanted my artwork to look like, and you don't have that ability with this. Mother Nature dictates what your image will finally look like,—it's been very interesting to create art work in this way.”
It was within Trenton that Palecek noted both, her confidence and creativity grew as an artist, following the embrace and encouragement of local community artists.
“I met many local artists, and everyone was very receptive of my work and me being a new artist in the community. Everyone was very excited to hear about what I was making and my process,” she said. “And I just found, from day one, that everyone has just been so warm and welcoming and excited about my work and interested in involving me within the community.”
Having struggled for years to find confidence in her work, it was through encouragement from other artists and continual opportunities to display her work, locally, that Palecek began to believe in her creations and take pride in their originality.
And it seems as though others have also found enjoyment in Palecek’s process.
“Heather is an incredibly creative and inventive artist,” said Michael Chovan-Dalton, photo coordinator and gallery director of Mercer County Community College’s JKC Gallery. “I have known Heather for almost four years now…She is both, steeped in the history of art and simultaneously unburdened by the constraints and rules that come with knowing so much. It is an incredible combination that allows Heather to manipulate the tools of historic processes into a contemporary practice.”
In 2019, Palecek was awarded the Jurors Choice Award for the Mercer County Photography Juried Exhibit and received an honorable mention at the 2021 Layered Light Juried Exhibit. In the last year, Palecek held two solo exhibitions– Resist Convenience at Trenton’s JKC Gallery and Still Resisting at Blairstown’s Romano Gallery–and, since 2019, has taught two “Introduction to Solargraphy” workshops.
“I've been creating artwork, like, my whole life,” Palecek said, “but I don't think I really put myself out there until maybe three or four years ago. So, finally finding that confidence to actually show my work to the world—that's made a really big impact on me and my identity as an artist and my self-confidence as an artist. It just took me a very long time to get there.”