The sensual beauty of wood and its relative ease of use made it the obvious material of choice for early camera makers. In this age of high tech materials its use for camera making is an anomaly but one which speaks to the human need for simplicity, authenticity and enchantment.
This wooden camera was built in 1979. It is modeled after early Daguerreotype cameras and uses classic dovetailed construction throughout. Adapting the design ideas for pinhole use, the camera has a three pinhole changer built into the “lens” panel. The rear sliding box – long missing – is not shown. The camera was the start of a long passion for handmade cameras that continues to the present.
I come at photography from a slightly schizophrenic place. I am fascinated with the design and craftsmanship seen in the early tools of photography but find that my personal practice of photography is not as concerned with the finer points of that craft. It’s almost as if I consider camera making an art and photography as a byproduct. I’ll readily grab a digital camera to record an image when it makes sense and yet love the whole process associated with using a handmade camera and the magical experience of chemical photography
I view traditional camera making as a combination of architecture, engineering and design, a toolmaker’s craft practiced with a nod to photo-history and a wink at Modern design. Like any creative pursuit practiced with deliberate intent, my work with cameras has evolved its own particular aesthetic, one that runs the gamut from the wood and metal working evident in these examples to work with leather, fabric, composites, electronics and even software code. It is one that is typically more informed by historical example than the DIY aesthetic that drives much handmade camera work in the present day.
I love to think outside the confines of this functional camera maker’s aesthetic. That is perhaps why I enjoy the making of lensless cameras somewhat more than standard lens based designs. My education as an artist contributes to the friction that emerges when the balance between engineering and serendipity becomes skewed in the direction of the former. The very loose confines of what constitutes a proper photograph in the world of lensless photography means there is more freedom in the design of a camera. I’m eager to see what happens if I cut a few more threads of the connection between the camera as an object and its function in producing a recognizable photograph.
Contrary to occasional misconception, I don’t believe that these particular cameras should be treated as precious works of art. They are finely made tools for a creative pursuit. Dents, scratches and other signs of active use contribute to the camera’s patina and personality. Just as many other shiny new utilitarian objects quickly succumb to signs of use, that first ding should be seen as a moment of liberation when the balance has been struck between the preciousness of the tool and its creative purpose. I am as equally impressed when an a camera makes a return visit to my shop in near-pristine condition as I am when it appears covered with tape and scratches. Their fulfillment as tools is simply not complete if they sit unused on a pedestal or shelf.
As opposed to using it to simply document travels, events, people or projects, I most enjoy photography when I am able to pick up a camera and wander into a place where my typically vague image of the world of daily routine is attenuated and at least partly replaced by a visceral experience of concentrated seeing. With the Trickster on one shoulder and the muse on the other, it becomes a process of deciding who’s getting the upper hand as I navigate from one compelling framing of the world to another.
I don’t remember when I first became aware of pinhole photography but I distinctly remember the moment during my third or fourth college photo-history class when I truly understood George Davidson’s famous and controversial image of 1890 – The Onion Field. The topic of my photo-history class that day was that curious historical moment when photographer’s found themselves emulating painters in an attempt to have their work accepted as an art form rather than a critically rendered record of every annoying detail captured through a sharp camera lens. So the Pictorialists did everything possible to break down the creative connection with the scientific processes that made photography possible a sort of artistic revolt against the very thing that had made photography such a miracle at its birth. Some Pictorialists seemed to embrace the idea of pinhole photography but before long both Pictorialism and pinhole photography would become foot-notes in the history of photography and, as Edward Weston came along, photographic acuity had once again prevailed. Through much of fine art photography’s recent history, photographers remained obligingly seated in the church of gratuitous sharpness. While some of the resulting work was indeed awe-inspiring, it mostly left me feeling that I’d rather just be standing where the camera was, the first hand experience more appealing than the than the attempt to bring it to me
So it is with much relief and excitement that I have witnessed the rapidly accelerating acceptance of alternative methods of photographic image making and printing over the last 30 or so years. The injection of a distinct and often skewed personal viewpoint into photography is what makes the current practice so satisfying.