Spring 2006 Profile

Sense of play

Auckland artist Darren Glass has fun pushing the subjectivity of photography to its limits.

It’s a familiar sight in any suburban park – a young man throws a Frisbee, runs after it and stoops to retrieve it from the ground. But then the sequence changes when our young man, artist Darren Glass, picks up the Frisbee and tucks it inside a black plastic bag. If you observed him in Woodhill Forest, say, you might see him walking through the trees with an innocuous looking pine log under his arm. But look closer and you’ll notice tiny holes piercing the bark and spiralling around the circumference of the log, which is actually a camera.

Walking around with these unusual cameras prompts a lot of attention and questions from passers-by, something Glass would rather avoid.

“I wanted to be able to photograph in an unusual way but not feel self-conscious about it. The log camera has twisted film inside it, so the pinholes look down and spiral around the log. It’s a joke on what a log might see,” he says.

Though Glass describes himself as a landscape photo-grapher, when you look at the eerie, beautiful images taken with his ingenious Frisbee pinhole camera, you won’t recognise any elements of landscape – at least not as you know it. These photos look more like pictures of distant planets taken through a telescope or meteoric events searing the black background of space.

This is fine with Glass, who is committed to pursuing unexpected views of the world and building pinhole cameras that push the subjectivity of photography to its limits.

This single-minded search for new ways of seeing plays out in unexpected ways. His latest show at Auckland gallery Anna Miles in June included several bizarre objects, including the log camera, coastline camera and Lemniscate camera, which is shaped like a very large infinity symbol. He wanted to show the cameras alongside his photographs so people would understand how the photographs are made, and the result was an exhibition that was sculptural as well as photographic. The cameras became art objects in themselves.

It’s interesting that on one hand Glass exercises strict, almost obsessive control over the image-making process, investing a huge amount of effort developing and building his curious array of cameras. On the other he introduces elements of accident and chance into the project by rolling a camera down the crater of a volcano or tossing a Frisbee into the sky.

Some of these cameras are more outlandish than others and destined to stay on the drawing board – for example the enormous camera that circles the summit of Mt Ruapehu. In building those that do make it off the drawing board, Glass leaves little to chance, so thoroughly does he understand the technology after years of working with it. A pinhole camera can be any lightproof container or object with a very small hole or aperture opposite light-sensitive photographic paper or film. Glass made his first one in 1990, while studying at Elam, and this marked the beginning of an enduring love affair.

His Multiple Aperture Pinhole Camera, for example, was used to make the 1999 work Waitin’ for my train, also shown at Anna Miles. Glass built the camera to take one 75m-long strip of film and then used it to make one continuous recording of a four-month road trip through the North Island. In the exhibition the unedited strip of black and white images was wrapped around a 2.4 metre-tall pine and plywood drum.

Because of its large scale the work encouraged the viewer to circle it and experience the surreal images in an almost filmic way. Though Glass spent a long time building the camera, which has 37 apertures, he didn’t test it before the four-month trip. It was only when he processed the film afterwards that he realised his experiment was a success.

A sense of experimentation and play runs strongly through his practice and Glass says he enjoys looking at scientific photography – perhaps because it is full of mystery, existing in an ambiguous zone between art and science.

“It’s hard to say anything new with photography – a sense of magic or mystery is really important to me.”

He also loves historical photographs and there are parallels. Old film was much less light-sensitive than it is today. Pinhole photographs too need long exposures – from one second in bright sunlight to 12 hours in subdued or artificial light.

Glass began his ongoing series of Frisbee pinhole photographs in 1999 while completing his Masters at Elam. He intends to make 365 images – one for each day of the year so they read like a diary. Looking at them, he can tell you the time of day and what the weather was like, sunny or overcast, when the image was taken. They show the passage of the sun and each revolution of the Frisbee, either wonky or symmetrical depending on the throw, over 20 to 30 seconds while it was in flight. Though he has been making them for over five years, these sublime images continue to surprise him.

The first exhibition of the series was titled Belly to the ground, in honour of photographer Eadweard Muybridge who was the first to freeze the movement of a galloping horse in his quasi-scientific black and white photographs. The French term ‘belly to the ground’ was used to describe the tradition of painting galloping horses with their legs spreadeagled. Muybridge was the first to prove how a horse really moves.

Glass’s title refers to the underside of the Frisbee and signals his interest in time and motion, in teasing out the mysteries of the everyday world in his photographs.

“I like the aesthetic look of old photographs. It seems the photographers spent a lot more time making them. I have a problem with the snap-happy digital way of working. Some people don’t invest enough in their images. For me that process of investing is building the camera, going out and shooting the photographs, processing and printing the images myself.”

His most ambitious camera to date is the Lemniscate (infinity symbol) camera, which has multiple apertures and loops back on itself, photographing its own body as well as the landscape in a weirdly self-reflexive gesture. He plans to use it in November during his Wild Creations residency in the Central Plateau where he will spend six weeks based at Whakapapa Village, walking and documenting tracks in the area. As always he plans a highly systematic approach, taking photographs of the mountains at regular distances along each track to create a chronological sequence of images. Like his previous series, the mountain photographs will be shown in chronological order. For Glass, who doesn’t edit his work, there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ photograph; they are all documents of an event or a place, he says.

Rather than trapping the harsh glare of a single, dramatic instant in time – Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, Glass tracks the slow, unsteady passage of time.

Virginia Were

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