Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unrefined Light

by Mark A. Fisher

Unrefined Light: Image-Making with Toy Cameras and Their Friends
March 28-May 9, 2008
The Foundry Art Centre, St. Charles, MO

Leica. Nikon. Hasselblad. Canon. All respected names in the photographic world. Names readily recognized across the globe as the standard-bearers of image-making tools that come to life in the hands of amateurs and professionals alike, capable of capturing phenomenal slices of time in those “decisive moments” of Henri Cartier-Bresson, those single frames of a life experience.

Windsor. Lensbaby. Stellar. Mark L. Diana. Holga. Perhaps not as well-known in the photographic arts, not exactly the first echelon of fine photographic optics and craftsmanship, not the standard-bearers of much beyond their idiosyncratic light leaks, thirst for electrical tape, and their watery, blurry, uncoated plastic lenses.

And yet, placed in the hands of master photographers, artists who can think “outside the box” (or turn a box into a pinhole camera), such primitive plastic “toys” and their friends become amazing instruments yielding wonderful photographs.

For the current toy camera exhibit titled “Unrefined Light: Image-Making with Toy Cameras and Their Friends,” juror Michelle Bates, internationally recognized authority on the Holga plastic camera and author of Plastic Cameras: Toying With Creativity (Focal Press, 2006), selected seventy-five images from fifty-five artists for the six-week exhibition.

John Dean, St. Paul, MO. Tank #7.

About the exhibit Ms. Bates writes:

"In creating photographs there is an inescapable relationship between the photographer and the tools used to capture light on film, paper, or sensor. Both the photographer and camera see the world in their own distinctive way. Often, people let the tool dictate the images made—subject matter, image style, perspective. But as the photographer becomes more familiar with different cameras and the equipments’ reaction and interpretation of light, the more each camera can be used to create images particular to personal interpretation. When an artist uses a camera as a tool for their artistic vision, he/she can make images that are uniquely their own.

Plastic cameras present many fun and fabulous opportunities for image-making. They’re cheap, light-weight, and simple to use. They allow an entry into medium-format film photography for the uninitiated, and an escape from complex, expensive equipment for the overwhelmed or jaded experienced photographer. The cameras are a departure from “normal” photographic gear, to the point where people tend to laugh as they watch someone shooting with one. And they can’t believe it when they feel how light a toy camera is. Many times this lightness tends to pull photographers toward shooting ethereal, whimsical subjects.

What intrigues me about these cameras is that, even though their controls are almost non-existent, and their structure minimal, in the hands of a visionary photographer such tools yield stunning imagery. In jurying this exhibition I looked not only for beautiful and technically sound images, I also sought out artists who used the cameras to create images unique to their own individual artistic vision. I applaud people who use their knowledge of light and photography to expand the bounds of what most people believe a plastic camera such as a Holga or Diana is capable of.

It was a joy to spend several days in the company of these images, and I was thankful that the gallery is large enough to allow me to choose a large selection of images. I thank everyone who entered, congratulate all those selected for the exhibit, and would like to express my appreciation to the Foundry Art Centre for hosting this fabulous exhibition

— Michelle Bates
March 2008

Tony Schanuel, O’Fallon, IL. Introducing the Pears.

In the world of plastic camera artists, Annette Fournet, Meg Birnbaum, Lisa Maira, Mary Ann Lynch, and Pauline St. Denis are recognized as some of the most accomplished practitioners in the genre. John Mann, Gary Moyer, Katie Clark Slick, Larry Joe Treadway, Bill Vaccaro, and Kai Yamada continue the list of world-class photographers who choose to include Holgas, Dianas, and other toy manifestations for their essential equipment list. Each of them offered strong visual, lyrical, well-seen, well-executed imagery for this exhibit, and local artists Tony Schanuel, Ben Guffee, Barbara Zucker, Joan Proffer, M.J. Goerke, Kay Wood, Marion Noll, Russ Rosener, John Dean, and others added their names to the growing list of those exploring what image-making with a toy camera can do for their own vision.

As Ms Bates intimated in her statement, “…in the hands of a visionary photographer such tools yield stunning imagery…” Five such visionary artists were selected for honors at the opening reception held March 28, but Ms. Bates was hard-pressed to select only five, such was the strength of offerings being shown.

Night Flight, a Holga image by Meg Birnbaum of Somerville, MA, was awarded a Solo Show or $1,000 cash prize. Four other photographers, Gwen Arkin of Pukalani, HI, Annette Fournet of Memphis, TN, Russ Rosener of St. Louis, MO, and Shannon Welles of Seattle. WA, were granted inclusion in a “Group Four Award” exhibition as well. To fully explore each image by each artist is an adventure best left to those visitors to the Foundry Art Centre who can allot a full afternoon to such a task, but brief synopses of several works follow.

Meg Birnbaum, Somerville, MA. Night Flight.

Meg Birnbaum’s Night Flight is full of mystery and marvel, a sinister edge, more than a bit foreboding. Prominent in the image, extending diagonally from lower right through the center and beyond is a lithe female form photographed from behind, clothed in a gown of some type, arms extended sinuously into a surreal background inhabited by blackbirds—perched on bare branches, or in flight—disturbed by the implied motion of the dancing woman’s arms, all shrouded in a brooding cyanotype envelope. Whether inspiration for this piece derives from mythology or from the wholecloth of Ms. Birnbaum’s own fertile imaginings, the overall feeling is of the latent dream world each of us visits when in slumber. More than a bit discomfiting, this image evokes a sense of fear, panic, impending attack. The placement of the birds, multiple layers of shadow, thrusting tree branches, and visual frenzy cause the eye to wander the full image, attempting to peel away the foreground figure from its ethereal surrounding.

Gwen Arkin, Pukalani, HI. The Standing of Time.

In The Standing of Time, by Gwen Arkin, the viewer is invited into a landscape both real and surreal. Done with a pinhole camera, then translated on watercolor paper as a photogravure, this image presents a series of almost cartoon-quality trees in the central horizon line, with other equally whimsical tree forms further removed on the right, all wonderfully shadowed and textured through a combination of sunlight and printing prowess. Pinhole images are known for their equality of sharpness in every quadrant; this clarity is then given some softness and atmosphere through the photogravure process to complete an amazing primeval scene of otherworldliness.

Shannon Welles, Seattle, WA. Off the Dock.

In a joyful display of youthful exuberance, Shannon Welles captures that delicious moment penultimate to plunging headlong into a body of water as her subject dives into the bay. Off the Dock arrests perfectly the awkward, ungainly young torso, suspended in midair, and speaks perfectly to the playful nature of summer days at leisure, captured no less playfully than with a toy—a $25 plastic Holga camera from China. Ms. Welles’ use of lith printing further enhances the sense of memory, of days past, of images put in drawers long ago only to be revisited by distant relatives or strangers, to wonder of the circumstance, the lost or forgotten tale. Such revelation through a simple plastic lens proves again that technology is no substitute for clear vision and readiness to capture such fleeting moments.

Annette Fournet, Memphis, TN. Hlnik, Slovakia.

Annette Fournet, whose photograph Krakow, Poland garnered her inclusion in a "Group 4 Award" at the Foundry, spent eight years creating a photography school in Eastern Europe. During that time she explored the marvelous, almost primitive cultures largely forgotten during the cold war and all the other wars that befell that region. In her explorations of the Slovak states she captured an entire vanishing culture, a throwback to centuries past, using one of her favorite photographic tools, the Diana camera. Such searches yielded a subset of imagery in her work—scarecrow figures used by the peasants in the region to ward off predators from their crops. One such piece, Hlnik, Slovakia, reveals a cruciform figure in a field of—what? Flowers? A grain crop? What is it about this place that requires such guardianship? Clothed loosely in what appears to be old clothing or fabric, but reminiscent of ashcloth, burlap, or other rough vestments, it takes on a holy embodiment, complete with the trappings of a flowing sash—in reality a large unfurled banner of what appears to be a plastic drop cloth or gauze—which winds its way from scarecrow to the foreground in an undulation mimicking the undulating hills of the background. There is history here, unspoken, unexplained, that thus far has been protected through benign neglect, given no credence or validity by passersby other than those who understand the true value of such a place, of such a time. Ms. Fournet has taken a simple field, a simple object, a simple time, and, in transcendent fashion, presented the viewer with something sacred, something valuable, something holy.

Russ Rosener, St. Louis, MO. Night Walk 3.

Looking at Russ Rosener’s Night Walk 3, taken with a 1937 Kodak camera altered to accept close-up rings and other things, one is transported to the same spot in time where that particular camera was first being used by ordinary families. Such families also went to movie houses to see good films, and poor films, and every other type of film, many done in black and white, just as most still photography was also being done in black and white. In Rosener’s image, a figurine very reminiscent of The Bride of Frankenstein stands as sentinel in the center foreground, her one visible eye glowing in the dimly lighted space. To her right, a shadowy figure stands. Threatening? Beseeching? Ominous? Another murky figure from an old film? And to the left, arching over the main figure, a streetlight? Doorway arch? Such is the adventure set up for the viewer by Rosener. As with any good storyteller, any good image-maker, there are levels to be explored, and beyond them, more layers. And so he invites us to create our own story, subplot, cast of characters, environment. He reveals much, but tells us little.

And the same can be said for all of the images to be found in this extraordinary exhibit. Whether taken with a Holga, an altered 1937 Kodak, a pinhole, or a Diana, all of the photographs reveal something of the human landscape, its prejudices, its loves, its mysteries, its joys. It is unfair to the remaining fifty artists in this exhibit to not discuss at length their work as well, for they are equally deserving. Given unlimited time, and unlimited space, they all should have their art, their vision, fully exposed to the public in this fashion. But if they were all merely written about, rather than experienced in person, then the true vision and artistry that is theirs would ultimately be lost.

To honor their work, to include their work in your own experience, to embrace it fully, it is required of us all to go to the Foundry Art Centre to see for yourselves. And to go to Art Saint Louis exhibits, and Mad Art, and all the other fine St. Louis regional venues where superb artists provide us with the opportunity to share in their joy, their vision, their art. You will be much richer for the experience.

The Foundry Art Centre is located at 520 N. Main Street in St. Charles, MO. 636/255-0270.

Mark A. Fisher is a photographic artist whose works have been exhibited in numerous national and regional solo and group exhibits. An art educator, Mark teaches photography at St. Charles Community College.