Saturday, June 19, 2010

Studio practice workbook 5.

Screen grab: Chanel 9 Online

Something occurred part way through the development cycle. Fellow art student Matt Wilson began a solargraphy project of his own. He employed a similar technique to the one I did but was not as interested in discretion as I was. The outcome was that a cluster of his cameras attached to a bridge were noticed and mistaken to be an Improvised Explosive Device. Although in this part of the world it may seem like an overreaction by the police to some unusually located Coke cans, it should be noted that a genuine malicious bomb scare had closed Dunedin International Airport the day before. The events that followed included the evacuation of eleven houses, the closing of the main highway south of Dunedin and the Bomb Squad flying from Christchurch by helicopter for the second time in as many days. To his credit Matt volunteered himself to the police as soon as he realised that it was his pinhole cameras that had caused the commotion. Following on from that fuss was the round of apologies and embarrassment from Matt and on his behalf by the School of Art. Then came a feature article on Matt and his solargraphy in the arts section of the Otago Daily Times.

Otago Daily Times 6 May 2010

When I heard from Matt about the incident soon after it occurred I knew it was going to generate interest for him. Difficult and embarrassing for sure and for a while with the possibility of a criminal charge, but still, a pretty spectacular jump start for an artist early in his career.

My feelings at this point were mixed. I was not the originator of the technique of solargraphy but I felt that I had some claim to be associated with pioneering solargraphy in Dunedin. I had been enthusiastically working on my solargraphy project for one and a half years developing it, I had thought, as an art form. I mentioned this in conversation to Nigel Benson, the author of the ODT arts section article about Matt, several months before the Koremata St bridge ‘bomb’ scare. I was upset that there was nothing in that article to suggest that Matt had not invented the technique himself. Recognition for my work seemed to have been taken from me. I was disgruntled and didn’t want to be.

I realise now that the presumed challenge to my ‘ownership’ of solargraphy in the local setting forced me to re-examine my work. What had I achieved after making and setting out dozens and dozens of cameras? What discoveries had I made over all that time of development? What had I brought to solargraphy that was genuinely creative? I determined that I needed to see it only as a technique and not an art form in itself. The bright streaks of light across the sky should not be the focus of the viewers attention, rather it was how I used the technique to convey a feeling or a narrative that should be my focus. I re-examined how I selected the images that lead the direction of my project. I reconsidered earlier images that were somehow interesting but had not shown the ‘required’ amount of solar activity.

Paul Virilio wrote about the pioneering photography of Nicéphore Niépce: “The main aim of the heliographic plate is not to revel the assembled bodies so much as to let itself be ‘impressed’, to capture signals transmitted by the alternation of light and shade, day and night, good weather and bad, the ‘feeble autumn luminosity’ that hampers Niépce in his work” .

I thought of my work along similar lines. The object was not to record an image of what could be seen, rather the light and conditions should be allowed to act upon the paper. The resulting image is made from the actions of the things that we expect and know about such as the position of viewable objects and movement of the sun. There other things at work here that we are not aware of. What objects pass before the camera too briefly to be recognisably recorded? Anything that happens within the field of view during daylight will reflect light from it’s surface and through the pinhole. Whether a trace is left on the paper may be impossible to say. At a certain level of detail there is too much noise and uncertainty to tell. Solargraphs often seem to contain mysterious marks and figures that perplex even an experienced solargrapher. My renewed focus brought me to reconsider those images with mysteries. I did not now see them as imperfect landscapes or architectural studies. Instead I began to read them at face value. Previously I might have thought, ‘What is that blue dot on a field of red?’, now I think ’Why am I moved by that blue dot?’

Other aesthetic choices evolved along the way. I became more interested in the play of sunlight upon water and through trees. The effect of these things on the images was an increase in chaotic patterns and weird colours. I sought places to fix my cameras that made more of this. Without fail the resulting paper image would be nothing like my mental image as I set the cameras yet I composed the shots as if I had complete control.

Coldwater Creek

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This work by Chris Reid is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 New Zealand License.