Friday, December 28, 2007

About My Pinhole Camera

People frequently ask me about my pinhole camera and pinhole photography in general. I first learned about this process when I was attending the Art Institute of Boston for my MFA. One of the faculty members, Jessica Ferguson, presented her work. She makes lovely pinhole images of dioramas she creates with collected objects. Her work intrigued me and I decided I wanted to know more about the process. I was fortunate to participate in a pinhole photography workshop with her the following semester. She then put me in touch with Craig Barber, another outstanding pinhole artist who doesn’t live far from me. Craig was kind enough to provide me with instructions for building the camera you see pictured above. He also provided me with the aluminum shim with the appropriately sized pinhole (which acts as the lens.) His instructions for operating this device were the equivalent of licking your finger and sticking your hand in the air to see which direction the wind is blowing… but I understood it’s an intuitive process. You have to go by “feel”. That’s one of the things I like about it.

Pinhole photography stands on the basic physics behind photography. Light passing through a tiny hole will produce a reversed image on a perpendicular plane. References to this phenomenon have been traced back to Chinese texts from the fifth century B.C. Many of us are familiar with the Camera Obscura, a drawing device used by some Renaissance artists, which was, essentially, a pinhole camera. Subsequently, lenses were developed to gain greater control over the refracting light and chemical processes evolved to create a permanent image – leading up to the wonderful world of photography we have today. (This, of course, is the highly abridged version of the history of photography.)

In an age when you can take a picture with your cell phone, I enjoy exploring photography’s roots. As you can see, my camera is pretty simple. It is made out of black mat board and duct tape and is fitted with a Polaroid sheet film holder. The Polaroid film holder is great on many levels – one being I don’t have a dark room and two, I’m not the most patient person. Since pinhole photography can be tricky at best, I like know right away whether or not I got a good shot.

The interesting thing is, I scan the Polaroid images and print digitally. So by using a pinhole camera, Polaroid film, and digital printing, my process just about covers the entire span of the history of photography. : )

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Scanner Photography: Revealing Wonderful Details

Onion Blossom
8"x10" • pigment ink on archival paper • 2007

Artists tend to work with the tools they are familiar with. I know a master printer who creates beautiful paintings with a brayer that are highly dependent on precise registration. His art has a direct correlation with his profession. I would even go so far as to say that the way his process transcends the expected use of printers’ tools and methodologies exemplifies the act of artistic expression.

Similarly, when I decided to pursue fine art photography – after working as a graphic designer for nearly fifteen years – it wasn’t long before I began experimenting with the tools of my trade. While I am well versed in Photoshop, I found I wasn’t much interested in manipulating my images digitally. I was, however, quite fascinated with what I could do with a scanner. Just about every designer I know has scanned a three dimensional object at one time or another, but I began to do so in earnest. Each day I’d collect small bits of plants during my morning walk and spend hours enlarging them (many times their original size) with my flatbed scanner. The results were stunning and had a profound impact on me.

Technology has never been difficult for me – but it had changed me over the years. I began my graphic design career in the late 1980s – just as the transition to digital production was beginning to occur. I gravitated to the field because I possessed the right combination of creativity, logic and craftsmanship. I could do amazing things with technical pens and x-acto knives. What’s more, tasks considered mind numbing by many, I found relaxing, even restorative. But, after years of fast-paced work on the computer, I no longer had the patience for the methodical precision I once enjoyed.

When I began using my scanner as a camera, my use of the computer changed. I slowed down. I was using the very tool that had sapped my patience to contemplate small details in the natural world – with an intensity and awareness that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child. The progression of the work that followed can best be summed up with the words of artists/authors David Bayles and Ted Orland in their book Art and Fear:
The need to make art may not step solely from the need to express who you are, but from a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. (p. 108)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pinhole Photograph of the Delaware River

Rafting the Delaware 1
16"x12" • pinhole photograph - pigment giclĂ©e on canvas • 2007

Last Sunday my family and I took a rafting trip on the Delaware River, PA/NY. It was cool and overcast - a perfect day for being out on the water. A number of people had the same idea - but with the long exposure of this pinhole photograph (about 1.5 minutes) you can't really see any of our fellow boaters. Instead, the image captures the serene tranquility of the beautiful landscape we all enjoyed.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Pinhole Photographs at Jersey Shore

My husband and I took our children to Wildwood, New Jersey for a mini vacation early this spring. We had the whole beach to ourselves and spent the days flying a kite, searching for shells and riding our bikes along the boardwalk. I took plenty of candid snap shots of our family with my digital camera – but nothing could capture the vast open space and quiet solitude of the beach like my pinhole camera.

I shot my beach images with Polaroid 54 sheet film on an overcast day. I used my handmade camera (that I made with black mat board and duck tape) that’s fitted with a 4x5 Polaroid film holder. I sit this camera directly on the ground when I compose my shots. Exposure time was about one minute (during which time I was usually squatting to hold the camera steady in the gusting wind and counting the time quietly to myself.) I guess I looked a little suspicious squatting among the dunes because at one point someone called out “What are you doing?!” I don’t even want to contemplate what it looked like I was doing! I’m sure I looked like a crazy person bundled up in my rather worn LL Bean coat, lugging around a yellow shopping bag (of supplies) and squatting in various locations.

Fortunately, the remaining parts of my process occur in the privacy of my home studio. Here I scan the Polaroids and tone them digitally. If I look crazy when I’m doing this, only my dog knows.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Impact of Place

[The following is an excerpt from my MFA thesis.]

For most of my adult life, my attachment to my childhood home has been a reoccurring theme in my art. I grew up in a farmhouse, built by my great-great grandfather, in a small town in the Catskill Mountain region of New York State. My fondness for the area is evident even in my commercial work as most of my clients are non-profit land-stewardship organizations seeking to protect the very streams and hillsides so deeply embedded in my psyche.

During the first semester of my MFA studies, I produced an artist book that portrayed my emotional associations with a stream that flows through my family’s property. Upon viewing my efforts, a faculty member suggested I read the book Lure of the Local by Lucy Lippard. This book was instrumental in providing me with an understanding of the ideas I had intuitively sought to express in my work. Lippard introduced me to the concept of “place” and perhaps more importantly, the reciprocal relationship between self and place. I began to appreciate that because I am a “placed person” (having developed a strong identity with a locale) I return to this place (in actuality or metaphorically) as a method for remembering who I am.1 Lippard described Kennebec Point, Maine as her “soul’s home”; my book project enabled me to visit my soul’s home and reestablish my emotional connection with the landscape of my youth.2

However, as much as I valued this emotional connection, I suspected my bond with this patch of land could be traced to another level, that it could even be reduced to a symbiotic relationship among the very cells in my body. The next book I read was pivotal in the development of my theory. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space introduced me to the notion of phenomenology – the philosophical investigation of how things are perceived. According to Bachelard, the physicality of the space we initially inhabit affects how we perceive and relate to all other spaces throughout our lives. He claimed, “But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us.” He continued, “…the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme.”3 Bachelard caused me to think about my physical relationship with the landscape of my childhood home – as it was instilled by my senses – and these thoughts became even more interesting to me than my emotional connection with the place.

Poet/author Diane Ackerman maintains, “There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses.”4 This biological system is the window of our awareness and shapes how we perceive and function within a space. As I type these words my senses tell me I am sitting in an office chair. I see its black leather upholstery in my peripheral vision and feel the cool, smooth texture of the material under my legs. I sense the warmth of the room and the stillness – maybe even a slight stuffiness – of the air. Without looking up, I have a pretty good idea of how high the ceiling is above my head. My senses quietly go about keeping me informed of where I am in space and enable me to process more than one piece of information at a time. For example, I am aware of the distance of the ceiling as well as the other attributes of my studio, in spite of my preoccupation with writing, because of a phenomenon author Tony Hiss refers to as “simultaneous perception.” In his book, The Experience of Place, Hiss explains:
We can experience any place because we’ve all received, as part of the structure of our attention, a mechanism that drinks in whatever it can from our surroundings. This underlying awareness – I call it simultaneous perception – seems to operate continuously, at least during waking hours, even when our concentration seems altogether engrossed in something else entirely. While normal waking consciousness works to simplify perception, allowing us to act quickly and flexibly by helping us remain seemingly oblivious to almost everything except the task in front of us, simultaneous perception is more like an extra, or sixth, sense: It broadens and diffuses the beam of attention evenhandedly across all the senses so we can take in whatever is around us – which means sensations of touch and balance, for instance, in addition to all sights, sounds and smells.5
Our five senses combine to create a sixth sense – a sense of attentiveness – on a subconscious level. Author Winifred Gallagher describes the same idea in a slightly different way. She says:
…the senses convey to the brain far more information than we can consciously be aware of; it is the totality of all that undifferentiated input that we perceive in a general way as ambience.6
Additionally, in her book, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions, Gallagher provides some excellent examples of how place can impact us on a biological level. She views “the earth and its processes as a unified living organism rather than as a grab bag of separate biological and geophysical systems.”7 According to Gallagher, everything is connected. She acknowledges how “even the simplest microorganism depends on environmental interactions to survive” and extends her examples from “our simplest [cellular] level up through any state in our development.”8

Gallagher supports her opinions by explaining how light, temperature, altitude and even geophysical energies affect us biologically. However, her most winning argument is embodied in her discussion of the womb as place. When one considers a developing baby’s physical dependency on its environment – a connection made so apparent by the coiling umbilical cord – it’s not too far of a stretch to accept our dependency on the places we inhabit. The light, the air, the temperature, the space – “our relationship with the larger world is built from countless sensory interactions between us and our settings.”9

I am fascinated by these ideas of how we subconsciously respond to the spaces and objects around us. That our response is primarily physical (biological) is even more intriguing and suggests a degree of dependency that most of us are unaware of. In her book, As Eve Said to the Serpent, Rebecca Solnit observes:
In making landscape art, contemporary artists recognized landscape not as scenery but as the spaces and systems we inhabit, a system our own lives depend on.10


1. Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: sense of place in a multicentered society (New York: The New Press, 1997), p. 33.

2. Lippard, p. 4.

3. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: the classic look at how we experience intimate places (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), pp. 14-15.

4. Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. xv.

5. Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Knopf, 1990), pp. xii-xiii.

6. Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions (New York: Poseidon Press, 1993), p. 24.

7. Gallagher, p. 23.

8. Gallagher, pp. 15-16.

9. Gallagher, p. 127.

10. Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), p. 47.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mixing The Old and New In Mixed Media

Interpretive Landscape 4
2005 - mixed media, 9"x12"

During my years as a graphic designer, I spent a fair amount of time in front of the computer. So when I decided to return to making fine art, I re-discovered the joy of tactile experiences. Materiality is very much a part of my process – and yet the computer remains a familiar tool.

I enjoy mixing old and new technologies/media. In my Interpretive Landscape series I combined digital collage with pinhole photography and encaustic medium. The digital component enabled me to seamlessly execute my vision with disparate mediums (photo and abstract watercolor) while pinhole photography and encaustic require the physical engagement I find so desirable.

The concept of an image captured through a tiny pinhole was around long before photographic processes became available to make the image permanent. (It was the basis of the camera obscura - a drawing tool used by many artists in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, documentation of such a device can be found as far back as the writings of the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti in the 5th century BC.) The pinhole camera is based on a simple law of the physical world. Light travels in a straight line and when some of the rays reflected from a bright subject pass through a small hole in a thin material they do not scatter but cross and reform as an upside down image on a flat surface that is parallel to the hole.

Encaustic (a medium comprised of bees wax, resin and pigment) is another "old process." This sensory-rich material was used by ancient Greek and Egyptian painters and is currently undergoing an overwhelming surge in popularity.

So today, when it is so easy to capture an image with a digital camera, it is utterly appealing to “go at it from another angle” – to bring physical engagement to the process – and to combine ancient technologies with modern. For me, the computer is a tool among many.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Why Do We Make Art?

In some of my previous posts I have shared reading responses - writings I did while pursuing my MFA. Reading plays a large role in the shaping of my art practice. It helps to solidify my ideas and identify my direction. In other words, I find it inspirational. I also often confess to getting my best ideas in the shower. (I don't know what it is about warm running water - but it's a conduit for my imagination.) Basically, I am always thinking and try to respond to my thoughts in a genuine way.

I was recently asked, “How do you stay fresh and come up with new ideas?” This person might as well have asked me, “Why do you make art?” I found the question difficult to answer. Continually asking “What if?” is just simply how my mind works. So one thing always leads to another. I guess I approach my art practice as I would a puzzle – constantly seeking a solution, yet recognizing that the achievement of the ultimate solution would mean the demise of my art practice. You can imagine that all this seeking can be somewhat frustrating because I never really experience a sense of completion.

So to be an artist is to be in the constant state of frustration of one pondering a puzzle with no hope for an answer. Because our work is really about the process of response – not the response itself. Heck, half the challenge is figuring out what the question is in the first place. The “why” should come before the “how” but sometimes we don’t even know “why” we do something. Often, we have to do it first and then figure it out. (To read more on this idea, take a look at Relying on Process.)

I believe we make art simply because we have to. It is our way of functioning in this world.