Light Lure: Courtney Johnson’s underwater pinhole photography

by Cole Dittmer
Wednesday, January 9, 2013

 “Ocean Isle Beach Pier,” carbon pigment print by Courtney Johnson.


Like the fishermen surrounding her, photographer Courtney Johnson lowered her line into the Atlantic Ocean at nine North Carolina fishing piers, unsure of what would bite on the other end. Johnson, however, was not hoping to catch any fish. She was hoping to capture images of the underwater world using a homemade underwater pinhole camera. 

This project was the latest foray into alternative photography for Johnson, an assistant professor of photography at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. After receiving a Charles L. Cahill grant in October 2011, Johnson said she wanted to use the funds to develop an unusual photography project at North Carolina fishing piers, and that pinhole photography was the perfect medium. 

“My favorite thing about [pinhole photography] is to see how long I can get my exposures,” Johnson said. “I like how tactile time becomes when you make a really long exposure and you’re getting multiple layers recording on the same film.”

Constructed of round cookie and pineapple tins, fishing weights and waterproof putty, Johnson’s underwater pinhole camera design was created from scratch with no model. Although Johnson routinely makes pinhole cameras with her classes, an underwater version was something entirely different because of the low-tech construction, Johnson said. However, Johnson’s initial design worked, and after testing the three she made in Greenfield Lake and the Cape Fear River, she traveled north and south along the North Carolina coast. 

Visiting piers from Carolina Beach to Kill Devil Hills from May through October last year, Johnson said she concluded her project at Nags Head Pier on the Saturday Hurricane Sandy passed North Carolina. The next day, Avalon Pier, which she had visited the day before, washed into the Atlantic. 

Not knowing what to expect when she developed the sheet film housed inside the camera, Johnson said she was extraordinarily surprised by how different each of the blurred images processed. 

“They are kind of shocking to me and every time I would get them back I would be … excited,” she said. “When I would get one back that was similar to one I already had I would say ‘OK, that’s alright,’ but when I got one that was really strange I would be very excited.”

Each photograph varies in some degree of color and pattern, and because her camera takes 30 minutes to capture an image, Johnson said it is impossible to tell exactly what the soft, glowing objects depicted are. 

“You could do underwater photographs that are sharp and clear and perfect, but that wasn’t what I was shooting for,” she said. “I like the aspect of the viewer imagining what that is and there not being an actual photograph. I wanted them to look otherworldly and strange.”

After developing the collection of photographs, Johnson was able to secure gallery space in UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building for an exhibit entitled "Light Lure" that will run from Jan. 17 to Feb. 22. Following her exhibit at UNCW, Johnson said she hopes to show her work at other galleries around the state and to raise awareness about North Carolina’s fishing piers. 

“Showing how valuable piers are to our community, because piers are decreasing in number ... I’m hoping I can bring some attention to that, Johnson said. “You can feel how tenuous this situation is and I think [piers are] a really important resource we have and a unique one.”

For more information about Johnson’s exhibit, visit 


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