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The opposite of Instagram

Winnipeg's Pinhole Artist Collective goes back to basics to recapture some of photography's unruly charm

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I'll admit that I have a sentimental attachment to "traditional" (analog, film-based) photography, but I can't pretend the transition to digital hasn't been a positive one -- for the most part.

My grandmother had a black-and-white darkroom in the attic of her house in upstate New York that we'd visit most summers, accessible by way of a three-metre ladder. I did my own black-and-white processing and printing through high school. I miss skulking around under the red and amber safelights, watching images materialize as if by magic in shallow, smelly chemical baths. I miss the post-vacation ritual of picking up the drugstore prints, tearing open the envelope in the back seat, uncertain and excited to see what turned out.

I think I last had film developed 10 years ago.

Digital is cheap, immediate, leaves comparably little to either skill or chance, and perfectly suits the way most of us actually use photographs on a daily basis, and if you're feeling nostalgic, there are apps and filters to add back in the scratches, light-leaks, and wonky colouring that digital SLRs and cellphone cams erased.

I can acknowledge the benefits of leaving film behind, but some things did get lost in the transition that Instagram can't quite replace. In hopes of recovering them, the Pinhole Artists Collective -- a rotating crew of notable Winnipeg photographers whose current exhibition at Platform Centre, be.still, coincides with the launch of their book, Collecting Light -- return to some of photography's earliest, most basic forms.

Any light-proof box with a hole on one side to serve a rudimentary lens can be a camera, whether it's an oatmeal canister or a spare bedroom (I've done it with both because I make my own fun.) Light passes through the "lens" and lands on the opposite wall as a perfect, projected image of whatever's outside. Put a piece of light-sensitive film or paper in its path, and you've made a photograph. It's basic physics; it's bonkers, and its simplicity and directness are what lend analog photography its unique, almost "magical" aura of authenticity.

Members of the collective use self-made "pinhole cameras" based on these principles to create lasting documents of the world around them. The images featured in the show are everyday scenes of buildings, plants and landscapes, but the idiosyncrasies of the crude devices used to make them yield surprising results. Buckles in the film result in funhouse-mirror distortions and reflections, while stray beams of light create streaks and haloes of vivid colour. Long exposure times and imperfect optics make for dreamlike blurring effects and stuttering double-exposures, and, for the most part, this is all well beyond the photographer's control.

The exhibition is, in essence, a collection of happy and genuinely satisfying accidents, but the book features images that are even more surprising. "Solargraphs," made with pinhole cameras wedged among tree branches or duct-taped to eavestroughs, "capture light" for weeks or even months. The exposures are so long that you see not just the trail of the sun as it passes, but an array of arcing bands that show its changing height in the sky across whole seasons.

If all this just seems needlessly antiquated (to say nothing of inefficient), that's fair enough. For the rest of us nerds, there's a workshop to make our own solargraph cameras on Feb. 2 -- and again in September to see how the pictures turn out.

 

Steven Leyden Cochrane is an Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2013 C6

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Updated on Friday, January 25, 2013 at 11:18 AM CST: Adds colour photographs.

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About Steven Leyden Cochrane

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.

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