Simply put, a pinhole camera is a light-proof box with a tiny hole at one end and photographic paper at the other. Contraptions may range in scale from the rudimentary empty cardboard oatmeal canisters of school days, for example, to the monumental. (Think Abelardo Morell’s room-sized dreamscapes.) Contemporary photographers Christopher Bucklow and Willie Anne Wright, currently on view in separate shows at Jackson Fine Art, use forms of lensless cameras to deliver sumptuous and unmediated versions of the truth. They share the near-miraculous fact that each image is a unique direct positive that captures a singular moment in time that can never be recreated or experienced again, lending a fleeting, temporal quality to the work of both artists and a shared sense of oneiric beauty.
For Christopher Bucklow, British painter and writer as well as one of the leading figures in the contemporary British “cameraless” photography movement, the results are dreamlike indeed, for dreaming is an integral part of his process. In Guests, his series of mostly large-scale photographs, Bucklow renders human silhouettes as phantasms of light against saturated backgrounds in jewel tones of sapphire, ruby, citrine or topaz. These shapes, with titles of “Tetrach,” “Tetrachs” or “Guests” record the moment and date of exposure, are inspired by the mostly friends and fellow artists who have come to Bucklow in his dreams.
Others in the series lend the feel of frozen lightning or constellations pinned to the page. “Plasma Torus, 3:27 pm, 9th Feb 2006” evokes the diagrammatic records of the spiral movements of the planets.
Like William Blake, Bucklow believes that each psyche is an entire universe. He vivifies the illuminative poetry of that idea with these photographs. They are stunning in the literal sense of the word; they are almost blinding and for good reason. The discrete elements that comprise the forms in the photographs are not pixilated digital images or Photoshopped points of light. Each vibrant point is an actual image of the sun; in fact, 25,000 camera obscura images of the sun. One for every day in a Biblical lifespan of 70 years. One for each of the finite times we get to wake up on this planet and take a trip around that very sun. While not always necessary and sometimes even detrimental to the contemplation of some kinds of art, an understanding of Bucklow’s process is integral to an appreciation of it.
Bucklow projects the shadow of his real or imagined sitter onto a large sheet of aluminum foil and traces its outline. He then pierces an average of 25,000 holes into the foil and lays it over a large sheet of photographic paper, all either unique Cibachrome or chromogenic prints on Fujiflex paper. Most of these are large-scale photographs, the largest here is 40” x 100” requiring a box over eight feet long. He carts his camera out into the light and with a magician’s sleight of hand in the style of the old whisking-the-tablecloth-from-the-table trick, he draws his “shutter” across the surface of the box to briefly expose the paper to direct sunlight. The intensity of light on a given day and time and the gel he uses to give the background color allow for the variations in each.
The now 90-year-old Willie Anne Wright has experimented in a decades-long career with some of the earliest ways of making photographs and with this show it is clear that she has made them her own. The 15 direct positive prints on Cibachrome paper in Direct Positive, her first show at Jackson Fine Art, defy their prosaic title. Each, ranging in size from 8 x 10 to 16 x 20, is, in a word, gorgeous. Wright’s choice of Cibachrome — a direct positive paper designed to make color prints from slide film — imbues her ostensibly banal subjects, empty backyard pools, her acquaintances’ leisure time in those pools or at the beach, or her still life tableaux vivants, with the quality of a remembered dream or the narrative feel of magic realism. Her photographs, while never precious, insist on the singular preciousness of any moment in time.
One of those tableaux, “Still Life with Richard’s Road, #5 from 1981,” is nothing less than a summer day’s dream of itself. In the foreground, watermelon, pomegranates and bread compose themselves on a table before the presumably eponymous red dirt road that recedes into the deep green field and the horizon of trees farther on. Wright’s images, as with Bucklow’s, are unique positives. There was no negative involved. She has captured a moment and endowed it somehow with the fragile, yet profound, a beauty that speaks to its transience. The formalist qualities of her “Richmond, Virginia: Alma and Bill’s Pool” make pure geometry of a cerulean blue wedge of water. Her saturated tones of emerald green and vivid reds almost vibrate with a devotional sense of observation, resonant from the wood with which she creates the pinhole cameras that have been Wright’s camera of choice since the 1970s, when, in that decade and the next, most of these pictures were made.
Bucklow and Wright employ light, time and simple physics, using similar mechanics, but in distinctly different ways, to create work endowed with the feel of a deeper truth and a deeper way of seeing. They each capture in an image what the writer James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is.” Both photographers have pushed the century(plus)-old techniques of the camera obscura to render the new — Wright with the inventive intensity of her Cibachrome pinhole moments and Bucklow, whose images made from 25,000 suns come joyfully close to defying the Ecclesiastical dictum that “there is no new thing under the sun.”
Christopher Bucklow’s Guests and Willie Anne Wright’s Direct Positive will be on display at Jackson Fine Art through July 9, 2016.