Artist Proof: “Project: Vanessa Marsh” At ProArts

by Vanessa Marsh on May 6, 2014

For my exhibition in the project space at ProArts, I installed a selection of images developed in correlation with a pinhole camera workshop through Satellite Affordable Housing Associates at Savoy, a low income housing facility in downtown Oakland. On display are a series of four 20”x24” black and white pinhole negatives along with their corresponding positive contact prints. Taken with a large, curved-back pinhole camera, the images explore unexpected and distorted views of the landscapes of the East Bay.

As an artist I am interested in the ways in which photography can be utilized to create distorted realities and challenge expectations of landscape and experience. In my series Everywhere All at Once, I create images composed entirely in the darkroom, using drawings on clear Mylar and dodging and burning techniques. The images can often appear real despite being entirely fabricated. On the other hand, the pinhole photographs on display at ProArts are images of the actual world yet because of the distortion caused by the curved paper appear unreal and upended. Both bodies of work focus on a sort of “looking up” at the landscape (the blurry intersection of sky and landscape that one might experience while laying on their back in a park, looking up at the sky through tree branches) yet they do so in very different ways.

I have not worked with pinhole cameras for a number of years so my first step in preparing for the workshop was to build a camera using a cylindrical oatmeal container, black paint, electrical tape and a small piece of aluminum with a tiny “pinhole” drilled into it. This tiny hole acts as an aperture; focusing the light onto the back of the container creating a miniature camera obscura. Because the internal surface of the camera is curved, light is distorted as it hits the photo paper contained inside, offering elegant distortions of otherwise banal features of the landscape.

During the workshop, the residents at Savoy created similar oatmeal canister cameras from scratch, which we used to take photographs in the surrounding neighborhood. Discussion centered on how photography can help one to understand the landscape in new ways. The residents were very engaged with the magic and immediacy of the pinhole and reveled in creating a camera out of simple, basic materials. I set up a small darkroom on-site and together we developed the images taken around the residence. The pinhole workshop offered the Savoy residents the opportunity to be creative and inspired with very basic materials, stepping away from their daily lives for a moment to contemplate the landscape and visual world around them. In turn, I was able to step away from my own artistic process to explore new ways of image making and understanding the landscape of the East Bay.

Working on commissions such as the one at Savoy is especially interesting to me because the process of accommodating the different needs and concerns of each situation opens up new and exciting possibilities within my own practice. Participants often have perspectives that add to my artistic vision and through the act of teaching and preparing to teach, new ways of making emerge. Inspired by the workshop, I continued to develop the aesthetics and techniques of the process, excited to translate my visual vocabulary into the medium of the pinhole. I was able engage with the landscape of the East Bay in a new, more intimate way while at the same time pushing the subject matter and technical aspects of the medium.

PROJECT: Vanessa Marsh will be at ProArts through May 23, 2014. The opening reception will be Wednesday, May 14, from 11am – 1pm.


Project: Vanessa Marsh two installations configurations