Perceptions through a pinhole
Donald Lawrence’s obsession with the camera obscura
Donald Lawrence has a rigorously eclectic approach to his creative expression. The Canadian artist and educator’s memories of a former lighthouse near Victoria, British Columbia, are expressed in drawings, maps, models, and a gathering of stories about islands during a tour he made of thrift shops and garage sales. Also on his résumé are the creation of a diorama based on a shipwreck site in Newfoundland, the design of underwater cameras for use in his Underwater Pinhole Photography Project , a body of work about commodity culture in urban man’s approach to wilderness, and several pieces created around the camera obscura.
The earliest camera obscura was an ancestor of the photographic camera, and there has been a renewed interest in it in recent years — a notable contrast to the new dominance of the high-tech digital camera. The simplest version of the camera obscura is a darkened room with a small hole in one wall; onto the opposite wall is cast, through that aperture, an upside-down and reversed image of the world outside. Lawrence, who presents a lecture and workshop at the New Mexico History Museum on Sunday, Feb. 15, is principal investigator of the Camera Obscura Project based at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. In Santa Fe, he will speak about his underwater pinhole work and about the Midnight Sun Camera Obscura Festival.
For that mid-June event in Dawson City, Yukon, artists, students, and academics will gather to create on-site works and present public workshops. Participants include Sven Dupré, director of the research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and Petran Kockelkoren, a professor of philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “They have their own fields of expertise, but both are interested in, and write about, the relationship between
learning and play,” Lawrence said. “Although the camera obscura is the obvious focus of this festival, there are subthemes, including the relationship of learning to play and also artmaking in wilderness settings.”
Lawrence mentioned two of the planned festival works. One is by Dianne Bos, who will construct a black wall tent and create multiple pinholes that will admit light in a star pattern on the interior and also function as a clock. Lawrence will mount a camera obscura on the side of the George Black Ferry that takes people across the Yukon River. Passengers will be able to peer in and see a panorama of the river and the city.
“Most of us met last summer to plan, exchange interests, and do public talks in Dawson City. For the festival, there will be off-site artist projects in locations around the city and the environs. Those will be complemented by an exhibition in ODD Gallery, which is the northernmost professional art gallery in Canada.”
Lawrence lives in Kamloops and teaches in the visual arts program at Thompson Rivers University. His areas of focus include explor-wilderness ing juxtapositions of urban and culture, investigating antique optical techcombine nologies, and engaging in works that study and play. He was part of the 2008 exhibition Ice
Follies at W.K.P. Kennedy Art Gallery in North Bay, Ontario. One Eye Folly , constructed in tune with the exhibition theme of ice-fishing huts, was a camera obscura built around a small rowboat/shed that sat on frozen Lake Nippising. His Kepler’s Klepper (Kayak/
Camera-Obscura) is a work created during a 2011 residency in Tasmania. He converted a 1960s German folding Klepper kayak into a floating camera obscura, which was a featured work in Tasmania’s biennial arts festival, Ten Days on the Island.
The artist has a particular fascination with prephotographic optical apparatuses. “In Santa Fe I will talk about those, beginning with camera obscuras of the 16th and 17th centuries, which were very simple roomlike devices, then enough of an overview history to see the movement to devices that were more portable and were used by artists and travelers. Those were small, tentlike devices that you stepped inside, and that effectively represented the origin of photography.”
The next major step in the evolution of that technology was the development of film; now the user could create a permanent image instead of simply viewing through a device. Adding film evolved the tool to what we think of as a camera. “Next in the story of the emergence of photography comes the beginning of tourist culture and a leisure economy. Just as the camera obscura becomes a bit obsolete as an optical instrument, it becomes very popular for entertainment at seaside resorts, say. I will also talk about my own work, looking at the interest in the pinhole camera and the camera obscura and how that meets up with my interests in wilderness activities, primarily sea kayaking.”
Following his New Mexico History Museum lecture, Lawrence will assemble participants in the Palace of the Governors courtyard. “We’re planning to have people construct a shelter and have suspended within that a kind of apparatus that will hold a lens that we can swap out for a pinhole. So part of the experience is building a camera obscura and another part is a little bit of a lesson about the relationship between lenses and pinholes and how they work differently: fundamental ideas about optics as well as an interesting activity. My talk will be about wilderness-based artmaking activities that I use in my work, so the workshop will be kind of akin to building shelters out in the landscape.”
Lawrence has been to Santa Fe once, attending the 2014 opening of the Poetics of Light: Pinhole Photography exhibition. Featuring more than 200 photographs and 40 cameras, the show hangs at the New Mexico History Museum through Jan. 10, 2016. “Dianne Bos is in Poetics of Light , and I have a piece that comes from the Underwater Pinhole Photography Project . For that I was constructing complex pinhole cameras and used them to photounderwater graph sea life, either from shore or from a kayak. The whole body of work revolves around these poetically simple photographs and these elaborate contraptions; therefore, the ‘urban wilderness’ idea that I enjoy exploring.
“I’m interested in wilderness and sea life, but as an artist I’m also interested in social ideas, so it’s on the one hand simply a playful activity and on the other a bit of a comment on all the technology we use to go into nature — myself included. That’s about as political as my work gets.”
Donald Lawrence: preliminary drawing for Quidi Vidi Camera Obscura , 2014; right, Quidi Vidi Camera Obscura , 2014; top, Common Purple Starfish Foraging , 2002; opposite page,
above, Underwater Pinhole Camera, B/W Model III , 2002; below, One Eye Folly , 2008; all images courtesy the artist