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Trailblazing photography explores alternatives: some of today's most creative fine art photographers are turning to alternative processes and techniques
Art Business News,  Nov, 2004  by Laura Meyers

From its beginnings, the art of photography has been driven by scientific and technological innovation, while its practitioners have sought to record and transform the world. But as our world itself is increasingly high-tech, and as photography has turned digital, a growing number of fine art photographers have adopted imaginative approaches to image-making.

These artists are experimenting with pinhole cameras to capture mysterious scenes; X-rays to pierce through to the elemental core of objects; and, reviving the very earliest of photography techniques--photograms to make pictures pared down to the most basic infrastructure of the medium: light, objects and paper.

"There are many, many ways to produce photographic imagery, and I would imagine that a lot of them have yet to be explored," says New York-based artist Adam Fuss, who is best known for his contemporary, cameraless photograms inspired by the "sun prints" of early 19th-century photographers William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins. Fuss' photograms have reproduced water droplets, birds in flight, moving light and even a trail of snakes moving across light-sensitive paper, dusted with talcum powder.

Fuss is not the only contemporary artist who has abandoned mechanical and digital cameras. "I love the photography but I don't love the cam era," explains Martha Casanave, a fine art photographer specializing in pinhole photography and photograms in Monterey, CA. "For me, the simpler the better. Pinhole is about as simple as you can get--and photograms eliminate the camera altogether."

Boston artist Jesseca Ferguson also favors "primitive photography, handmade cameras and handmade images" for her experiments making pinhole photographs as ambrotypes on glass and on Polaroid film. Southern California photographer Jerry Burchfield makes his "lumen prints" photograms by placing plant specimens from the Amazon onto outdated photographic paper and leaving them to bake in the tropical sun, resulting in an image influenced in part by the plant juices.

Reeve simplifies his pinhole cameras to bare essence: photographic paper itself, folded and constructed into a box that is kept in the dark until the moment of exposure.

Today, says Tom Vogel, director of the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York, many photographers like Fuss, Casanave, Reeve, Burchfield, and Ferguson "are trying to express their creativity in a different way other than just by snapping a picture."

"Indeed" adds Susan Spiritus, owner of the Susan Spiritus Gallery in Newport Beach, CA, "artists do try to do something unique and different, not standing in the footprint of someone who came before."

Mimicking the Ancients

Of course, many of these experiments actually mimic, technically, the footprints of many who came before--some in ancient times. Photographer Abelardo Morell's just-released book, "Camera Obscura" (Bullfinch Press, September 2004), celebrates a phenomenon known since ancient times. In 300 B.C., the Chinese philosopher Mo Ti used a camera obscura--literally, Latin for darkened room--to record an inverted image. Aristotle, Euclid and the 10th-century Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan (also known as Ibn al Haitam) utilized camera obscura, as did artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Vermeer, Carravagio and Canaletto. This marvel is really a simple law of optics: if you blacken a box, whether it is matchbox-size or an entire room, and then pierce the wall covering with a tiny hole, the image of the outside world will appear on the opposite wall, upside down.

Camera obscura technology has been used in astronomy to study solar eclipses and in spy work to make surreptitious surveillance cameras. In the Middle Ages, pinholes in the ceiling of many early European cathedrals were used to tell time.

In the art world, pinhole photographers today are making all kinds of pinhole cameras and using them to create all types of imagery.

For instance, British artist Rowena Dugdale uses a Pringles[R] potato chips tube as a pinhole camera and exposes the image on Polaroid paper. Although she observes that there are "recognizable elements, the image feels as though it has been taken through a strangely different eye." Pinhole photographer Eric Renner of New Mexico has experimented with a two-hole pinhole "camera" made from a plaster cast of his own face, shooting portraits (often of his wife, fellow pinhole artist Nancy Spencer) with the apparatus. "The idea is that we were looking at each other through each other's eyes," he observes.

Along with face masks and Pringles tubes, contemporary artists have improvised pinhole cameras from oatmeal boxes, cookie tins, sea shells, and even a station wagon and an abandoned refrigerator. Pasadena artist Stephen Berkman devised a pinhole camera obscura from a Victorian hoop-skirt dress. Indeed, sometimes it is the making of the camera that forms a part of the artistry, says Ferguson. "Making your own camera is kind of a subversive action in a consumer society."

Generally speaking, pinhole cameras--those in traditional casings or not--share common elements, including long exposures in natural light, which record time as well as objects; a strange depth of field; soft focus; and the camera's ability to see things that the human eye misses.

Bethany de Forest, an artist in the Netherlands, creates a tiny, "realistic," imaginary fairy-tale world, where the building blocks are sugar cubes, cotton bails, asparagus, raspberries, leaves and twigs. She uses mirrors to create the illusion of space, and builds a dwarf pinhole camera that blends in to the setting, in order to take a photograph inside this "room."

Artist Isabelle Lousberg, who shows with l'Usine Galerie in Paris, sets pinhole cameras outside--sometimes for weeks at a time, and throughout the year--to photograph "deserted places" in the landscape of all seasons. The technique, says Lousberg, creates photographic images that are "faint shadows of fragile worlds."

Artist Christopher Harris' work resembles abstract paintings with gradations of hue, but in fact Harris uses a hand-constructed pinhole camera to photograph, in very soft focus, the landscapes and skies of Puget Sound in Washington State, where he lives. Harris photographed the Port Susan inlet from one vantage point on a high bank overlooking the mouth of the bay, over a period of several months at all times of day. The slight irregularities in the horizon line are based on tidal variations, and the slightly reflective sheen of his work results from mounting the chromogenic prints on aluminum.

Luca Pagliari's abstracted images of landscapes, which he'll often project on a wall and rephotograph, are "very ethereal, and really soft, often because it's a double pinhole," says Vogel of the Benrubi Gallery, Pagliari's dealer. "They look like paintings, with a watercolor feel."

Pinhole photography is often a conceptual statement. When the Berlin Wall came down, German artist Marcus Kaiser used holes in the wall as the camera, taping a film holder to one side of the hole, and a pinhole to the other. After making an image, Kaiser reversed the pinhole and the film to create pinhole photographs of both East and West Berlin.

Capturing the Mysterious

Although a pinhole camera is "blind" because it has no viewfinder or lens, artist Jesseca Ferguson says, "I find that it 'sees' in mysterious ways. Sometimes it grants me something quite unexpected, which you couldn't see any other way. The image only exists in a private theater. For me, it's the way memories or dreams work."

Many pinhole photographs tend to have soft and blurry lines, but Ferguson's assembled tableaux tend to be in sharp focus, despite the lack of a camera lens, as are the coastal pinhole photographs made by Martha Casanave, who places her pinhole camera on the ground along the Monterey Peninsula in California. At first glance, Casanave's images appear to be traditional seashore pictures. But upon closer study, the far away appears near--you could almost reach out and touch the distant horizon. "There are characteristics of pinhole [photography] that you can't get with anything else--the almost infinite depth of field," explains Casanave, who is represented by private dealer Robin Venuti. For example, she says, "If I have a box that is three inches from the pinhole to the film, then starting three inches away from the camera to infinity, everything will be focused in equal sharpness. The exaggeration of objects, which are closer, is because of the wide-angle effect."

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