Before I came to the Island a year ago I was largely unaware of the variety in and the vitality of the arts scene here. It is possible to come across artists and artisans working in almost every medium and in many cases in very unusual mixed-media. At the season close of The Dunes out at Brackley Beach I came across a piece by a local artist that captured my attention both in the use of mixed forms and because, well because I liked it immediately.
Mary Carr-Chaisson is based in Charlottetown and works out of her Pinhole Photography Gallery . Pinhole photography is the art of taking pictures at its most basic and Carr-Chaisson has been creating images using this technique since the early ’90s. She first learned the skills involved as a fine arts student at Mount Alison University.
She says she enjoys the uniqueness of pinhole photography which allows her to play with abstraction, distortion, and magnification. Her photographs have a vintage air of times past and she admits that she “likes the nostalgic feeling they evoke in the viewer.”
I understand what she means by a “nostalgic feeling” – looking at her photos reminds me of many of the family photos I have stored in that box I mean to go through one of these days. And looking at her equipment I realize that it isn’t all that much different from the old Brownie box camera my mother used to capture those events, moments and people.
So what exactly is a pinhole camera:
This is a very basic camera that can be constructed out of found materials such as cans or boxes, provided it is made light-tight. This can be done by lining the interior with black construction paper, and taping the sides with black electric tape. A small piece of pie plate or thin brass can be used to make the camera lens. The aperture is made by drilling a tiny hole into the brass or pie plate. This is then attached to the body of the camera. A material such as a piece of cardboard or cork can serve as the camera shutter. When taking the picture, a piece of film or photo paper is placed inside the camera opposite the lens. The shutter is then removed from the camera, and the light enters though the tiny pin hole to expose the film or paper behind. A watch can be used to count the time required to take the picture. This type of camera has no light meter, viewfinder, multi-aperture lens, or other features of standard cameras. A lot of patience and practise is required when using a pinhole camera.
In the past few years Carr-Chaisson has been taking her photography one step further by combining it with an ancient art that is not that widely practised today: encaustic or hot wax painting. The use of Punic Wax in painting was described in early Greek writing and the earliest existing examples are the Fayum Mummy Portraits from Egypt of 100-300 A.D. In 77 A.D. Pliny the Elder describes the art of wax painting in Book 35 of his encyclopedic Natural History. It was also a known on the island of Samar during the 1500-1800s but is now considered a lost art in the Philippines. In the 20th century there was a minor revival in the use of encaustic by early members of the Bauhaus and by the Mexican muralist movement. It has seen a further revival in the past few years and new tools and materials have made it a more popular art form.
In this case Carr-Chaisson took one of her photographs and mounted it on a wood base that had been covered in white paper. She applied layers of encaustic wax to the photograph, building up some areas, leaving others barely touched by the medium. She also created abstract areas to the right and below the photograph that are heavily built up like faded bars of some mysterious minerals.
Here is the photograph that Mary Carr-Chaisson used as the foundation for the little piece that now graces a wall in our living room. The image of the Warehouse at the Experimental Farm here in Charlottetown was taken with a wooden pinhole camera then created in her darkroom using film and traditionally printed using various darkroom chemicals and washed. Rolling the mouse over the picture will show how she transformed the black and white photograph with the use of pigmented, obaque and clear wax in applied layers.
There is still, for me at least, the evocation of that feeling of nostalgia perhaps now heightened by the hints of faded colour and softness that the wax gives to the image.
P.S. I began thinking the other day, always a dangerous sign, about how heat/cold would affect the piece and was please to find that should it start to melt the best advise was to get out of the building: encaustic wax typically withstands temperatures of up to 120ºF. Also the wax will continue hardening for up to three years and could turn dull. The Eloise hint to restore its gloss: rub gently in one direction with a nylon stoking.