The Message [pinhole photograph]
Iceland, March 18, 2015
(click on images to see them larger)
This is the latest addition to my Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin series. It was photographed in Iceland in March of this year. I had actually photographed the bottle with the note (an actual letter dating from 1916) in a very different location in Iceland the previous October, but that image just didn't do it for me, and so I waited to give it another try on my next trip there. For those unfamiliar with this series, the images are shot on medium format film using a wooden pinhole camera. After the negatives are developed I choose an image to work on and then scan the neg and all further tonal adjustments and selective toning is done in Photoshop. Although Photoshop does play a role in the polishing of the images, they are not composites; the artifacts are placed in the locations and each photograph is a record of the scene that was created in that landscape.
The first image in my Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin series was actually on the first roll I ever shot with my ZeroImage 6x9 multi-format pinhole camera. That was back in August 2006 and that roll was initially a test roll, just to get a sense of the camera and proof how reliable the exposure time recommendations were on the small brass calculation dial on the back of the camera.
For the test shoot I went to a nearby river, which is about 10 minutes from my house, and I brought along an old typewriter to work with an idea that had been percolating in my mind for several months. That roll proved that the simple lacquered wooden box was a very capable image-making device and that the exposure time dial could be trusted. And, it resulted in several fine shots of the typewriter. I did not know at that time that this would be the beginning of an almost decade-long series, but I was quite pleased with the image of the typewriter by the river.
With some shots, as with the first try at the message in a bottle, they just don't work the way I had hoped. This is an occupational hazard when photographing with a wooden box with no viewfinder and having to wait several days or weeks to see the developed negative. In those cases I will sometimes shoot an artifact later in completely different landscapes. For other images, the pairing of the artifact with a specific landscape is so perfect that I wait, sometimes many months or even over a year, to return to the same location and make another attempt at the images.
I'm often asked why I go to all the trouble of using a wooden pinhole camera and that antiquated medium of film to make these photographs. For me, it really comes down to the experience of making images this way, rather than the technical capabilities (or lack-thereof) of the camera. The whole reason to photograph them the way I do is that using a pinhole camera is a very different photographic experience from using a digital SLR, which I use for most of my image making. And that experience is a key part of my enjoyment of this series. Being out in the landscape with these artifacts, and using a wooden camera with the same level of technological sophistication as the cameras used by the pioneers of photography in the mid 1800s (not to mention a light-gathering process that was recognized by Chinese writers and philosophers back in the 5th century BC) is an experience that cannot be achieved using a modern camera. In this case, the journey is just as important as the destination.
My work on this series has slowed down, but after nearly 9 years, it's still simmering nicely and very much alive in my mind. Of course, working with a wooden pinhole camera is naturally a slower and more meditative process, so a slower overall pace is quite fitting given how the images are created.
After shooting nearly fifty artifacts in many different types of landscapes, I feel that I am nearing the end of the series, but I am in no rush to get there and there are still images, very clear in my imagination, that I would like to make. Truth be told, I still enjoy this process very much. It's like having a conversation with an old friend. Even after many months apart, we can get together and effortlessly pick things up right where we left off. That's one of the benefits of a long term creative project.
You can see more the the Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin on my web site