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The American West as Seen Through a Pinhole Camera

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Why I Use a Pinhole Camera

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A pinhole camera is nothing more than a box with a tiny hole on one side.  By contemporary standards, pinhole cameras are positively archaic.  There is no optical lens or viewfinder.  The aperture of my camera is ƒ-256 and therefore exposures are typically long.  Depth-of-field, the distance between the nearest and farthest objects of relative “focus” is infinite.  Compositions are based on experience and dead reckoning.

Original cardboard box pinhole camera. (1995 - 2002) 4x5 format

Presently:  Zero Image pinhole camera.  (120 film, 6x9 format)

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Why a pinhole camera?  My sense of the wilderness is mysterious and ethereal.  A pinhole landscape photograph is not about fine detail.  Rather, the landscape is reduced to light, form, and, in many situations, movement.  Indistinct forms heighten mystery.  My aesthetic vision is influenced by the Hudson River School (mid 19th century American art movement) where the wilderness is typically viewed as unspoiled, pastoral, and timeless.  Beauty and harmony are everlasting.


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The Edwin James Project

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Sunrise, east face of Pikes Peak with pinhole camera

In 2017, I initiated the Edwin James Bicentennial Project to photograph Pikes Peak and the surrounding landscape with a pinhole camera.  My ancestor, Edwin James, was a botanist and surgeon on the Major Stephen H. Long Expedition of 1820.  Edwin was the first recorded ascent of Pikes Peak on July 14, 1820.  I wanted to photograph the landscape as the Long Expedition might have experienced it 200 years ago:  a vast, unspoiled, and timeless wilderness.  I never intended to follow his footsteps, but to travel in similar terrain and experience the land.


•  Ongoing landscape photography with a pinhole camera

•  A three-day hike to the summit of Pikes Peak on July 14, 

    2020, to commemorate the bicentennial of Edwin James 

    achievement on July 14, 1820. (Completed)

•  Publish a legacy book (Pending)

The image to the right is the only known likeness of Edwin James at approximately eighteen years old.  The original was etched in ivory and its whereabouts is unknown.  A graduate with honors from Middlebury College in Vermont, Edwin was a man of many talents – an esteemed botanist, physician/surgeon, geologist, explorer, author, and abolitionist.  As an explorer, he was the first documented individual to summit Pikes Peak on July 14, 1820.  He wrote the Official Account of the Major Long Expedition in 1823.  The Account was later used by James Fenimore Cooper for his novel, The Prairie.  Further, Edwin translated the New Testament into Ojibwe.  As a botanist on the 1820 Long Expedition, Edwin collected 700 species of plants, 140 of which were new to science, including the Colorado state flower, the blue columbine.  Late in life, his homestead served as a station on the Underground Railroad.  He died on October 25, 1861.

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Picture Gallery
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A map from the Expedition Account Atlas, 1823.  Edwin was embroiled in controversy by designating the area east of the Rocky Mountains as the “Great American Desert.”


As a result, it is estimated that western migration was delayed by forty years.  Major Long renamed Pikes Peak to James Peak, which is noted in the map.  Later, after several decades of disagreement, the issue was settled and the mountain yet again reverted to Pikes Peak.


A smaller mountain, James Peak, 13,294 feet elevation, was named after Edwin and is located within the James Peak Wilderness near Idaho Springs, Colorado.

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Path of the Long Expedition through Colorado

Pikes Peak or Bust!

Bicentennial Commemoration with family and friends of Edwin James reaching the summit of Pikes Peak:

July 14, 1820 − July 14, 2020

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The Edwin James Book

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People like a good story, and the life of Edwin James is a good story.  To the general public, Edwin is an obscure figure of early American Western history.  To historians and scientists, he is actually fairly well known.  As a botanist, author, and physician, Edwin's contributions are significant. 


But his story doesn't end there.  In the decades following the Long Expedition, Edwin would find himself embroiled in noble and ethical causes.  He was an outspoken advocate on behalf of the environment, the Indian, temperance, and ultimately as an abolitionist with his homestead in Burlington, Iowa as a station along the Underground Railroad.


Most of us hope to be remembered and have our accomplishments carry forward to the next generation.  Edwin's life and history is worth remembering, especially in context of his intuition regarding American Westward Expansion.  A book endures the test of time.


The commemoration on the summit of Pikes Peak on July 14, 2020 is now past.  After the exhibit runs its course, the principal photography is completed, and everyone goes home, this book will be a lasting record of both Edwin James and the timeless wilderness that he explored.

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                Book Description

        Title:  On Common Ground

    •  Hardcover
    •  9.5x9.5
    •  152 pages
    •  200, limited edition, signed copies
    •  Text by Mark James

    •  25 black & white photographs by Mark James

    •  Introduction by Bradford Janes, Forrester

    •  Botanical illustrations by Melissa Carmon

    •  Colophon

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New & Past Exhibits

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Pikes Peak: On Common Ground


A traveling exhibit of pinhole landscape photographs from Pikes Peak and the Edwin James Project



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Remnants of the West:  Edward Curtis and Mark James

An ongoing traveling exhibition organized by the Dubuque Museum of Art in association with the Studio of American West Photography.  For leasing information, contact Stacy Peterson, Curator, Dubuque Museum of Art at:

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2015, Rocky Mountain National Park Centennial 1915 - 2015:  Twenty Years of Photographs by Mark James, Fort Collins Museum of Art, Fort Collins, Colorado

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2014, Perspectives in Photography, Daughtrey Gallery, Sage Center of Fine Arts, Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan

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Pikes Peak Regional History Symposium, Penrose Library – Special Collections, 5550 N. Union Blvd., Colorado Springs, CO 80918
Saturday, August 28, 2021,10:30 a.m.
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for Booking
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About Mark James

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"As I look at the photographs of Edward Curtis and Mark James, I'm really impressed to realize that they represent an almost unbroken span of time from Curtis' birth in 1868 to his death in 1954, and Mark James , born in 1955 to today.  It's almost as if a torch was passed in that mid 50s era."  − George Slade, author and photography historian

“When artists abjure our escalating technology, we commonly refer to them as romantics or even reactionaries.  Paradoxically, Mark James is perhaps best described as a radical.  The word 'radical' is derived from the Latin radix, meaning to go to the root or origin.  And Mark James has surely returned to the roots of photography, to the pinhole camera, its peculiar magic, and the call of time.” – Jane Fudge, former Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum

A lifetime of photography.  Mark at seven-years old with his Kodak Flashfun Hawkeye camera in 1962.

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The way I see it...

It’s all about the photographs and the journey to get them.  In my view, if I don’t have a camera, there is little point in being out in the wilderness.  Nature, for all her glory, usually requires payment from those who linger in the land for too long.  She’s a cruel mistress and never misses an opportunity to test your limits.  I have lost three tripods to the mountains!  I usually venture into the wilderness alone and off-trail to find the object of my interest.  Typically, the story behind my landscape photographs is as compelling as the picture itself.

So why bother?  In a word, Beauty.  The pursuit of beauty is worth all the effort and discomfort that the wilderness imposes.  Socrates observed that great art contains three characteristics:  beauty, truth, and goodness.   Harvard trained psychologist, Howard Gardner, suggests keeping lifelong portfolios of beauty.  That’s what I do.  I bring home timeless photographs from places most will never see or experience.  They are souvenirs that can be added to your lifelong portfolio.

My tool of choice is a simple wooden pinhole camera with electrical tape as a shutter.  I use black & white film.  By today’s standards, my camera and medium are positively outdated and primitive.  A pinhole image requires long exposures and obscures details.  The photograph is reduced to form and light.  I consider my pinhole camera a time machine.  I can jump to the past and return with timeless pictures of the wilderness as it may have looked long ago.

That’s what I am all about:  a man in the wilderness, camera in hand, searching for photographic mementos that can be added to your portfolio of beauty.  And if you don’t have such a portfolio, given the current state of the world, now would be a good time to start one.  Timeless beauty is one of those simple pleasures that we too often take for granted, but lasts forever.

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Mark James, 13005 N. County Road 15, Wellington, CO  80549

Phone:  970-391-1086

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