Murray Polson makes his own cameras out of ABS plastic sheet and pipe. He lets action determine exposure and takes his pulse as a measuring device. He creates scenes for the pinhole camera to see. Canadian Murray Polson is his own technological shutter.
I had the opportunity to ask the artist why his experiments are like trapping a film in a single frame and what he is going to show in his upcoming exhibition “Pinhole Photography” at the Metropolis Photo Gallery in Victoria, B.C., starting Saturday, 7 April 2018.
Murray Polson, when you think back to your very first camera who taught you how to use it?
Murray: The first camera I remember was a Brownie Hawkeye, made by Kodak. It was almost cubic in shape, made of black plastic with its viewfinder on the top. To see what I was going to photograph, I held the camera at about waist level and looked down and through the square viewfinder to see my subject and composition. The shutter would make a ‘ping’ sound not at all like the click of the today’s cameras. It was very easy to use. It took Kodak’s 620 film. If I really wanted to get fancy I could clip on a flash unit. I don’t think I ever got that complicated. I’m sure I learnt how to use it by determined fiddling rather than formal instruction.
These days, you make your own cameras out of plumbing supplies. What type of cameras do you work with and for what projects?
Murray: Today I make my own cameras out of ABS plastic sheet and pipe that I find in the plumbing section of the hardware store. The camera I use the most takes a 35 mm film cassette. It is round so that the camera sees about 340 degrees.
What kind of film do you use?
Murray: I use both black and white, and colour film; the kind of film depends on the subject or the idea I want to illustrate.
Where did you get your idea for the round camera?
Murray: The idea came from a painting project. I had been going out to a local park to paint. The park was big enough so that I could walk for about an hour, mostly to get away from people, before I choose a place to paint. After many walkings out, painting and walking back I realized that the walk out created a history of that journey. In that series of paintings I was using my sensibilities to choose what colours and shapes the landscape suggests rather than painting in a realistic manner what was in front of me.
The idea of the history of my walk out offered a look backwards. In keeping with the use of my senses, I choose my sense of light as a medium and photography as a way of recording that sense.
Hence the round camera…
Murray: Yes, it looks all around as well as backwards. In order to use my sense of light in an uncluttered way, I took as much of the technology of photographing out of the camera in order to leave only my relationship between light and film. I took away any lenses and allowed light to find the film through a pinhole drilled through a thin sheet of metal. I took away the mechanical mechanisms of a shutter and used a piece of tape over the pinhole to keep the light out; then taking the tape away to let the light in.
If you like, I was my own technological shutter. I didn’t what to use any light meter or technical tool to “get results” as it were. It took time for me to understand the quality of the light on any given day and how the film would respond to that light.
What does counting to 50 according to your heartbeat have to do with pinhole cameras?
Murray: I needed some kind of measuring device to keep track of how I was relating to the film. I took my pulse as a measuring device. After a while I was able to sense the day and say to myself: this is a 50-pulse-day. And I would let light into the camera by removing the tape, then find my pulse and count to fifty, and then replace the tape over the pinhole to make the exposure.
Did it take some time to create some sympathy between you and the tool?
Murray: Indeed, but after a while I was getting the kind of results I imagined. And along the way I discovered many variations that different exposures can bring.
I am looking at the result of a particular picture of Babington Hill on Vancouver Island where you took your big pinhole camera. At first glance, it looks like a normal scene in nature. But then you realize that there is nowhere for the eye to rest. Can you explain why?
Murray: Yes, Daniela, ‘Babington Hill’ is an interesting picture. Because the camera is round, it needs more than one pinhole to expose the film. The camera I used to take Babington Hill has four pinholes arranged symmetrically around the camera’s edge. In this instance, I opened all the pinholes at the same time, counted my pulse to the number wanted and then closed the pinholes.
Let’s think about this a bit – the camera is doing what you do when you stand in one place and turn around so that you see all the sights around you?
Murray: Yes, and when the film is developed and printed, the action of going around in one place is rendered in a single panoramic image. That’s how the photograph appears as a usual landscape picture. But, when you look closely at the picture, you can see that the image from one pinhole overlaps the image of the pinhole beside it.
As you see an image or a location from different points of view, the images begin to overlap. The observer senses a filming quality of some sort, why is that?
Murray: The overlapping produces images that just don’t quite make sense to your eye. In fact, you are seeing four adjacent landscapes side by side. The consequence of this is that the viewer has no single place to view the picture from. There are four places to view the photograph from and consequently your eye moves from one centre to the next, leaving the viewer with no place to rest.
Let’s talk about ‘dispersion’, one topic of your creative work. When you talked to your sister about the death of your Grandfather, you came across 2 different stories. How did this discrepancy between ideas of a family experience affect your artistic work?
Murray: Taking photographs of scenes that are already there is one way I use my cameras. Another way I use them is to create scenes for the camera to see. I remember having a conversation with my sister about the death of our grandfather. I said that he died a crazy man after a brain operation and she said: no, he died of a liver infection.
Two members of the same family having two very different versions of our family history; I thought that was worth portraying. I thought that glass could be the consistent family, and shattered glass the divergent histories. I bought a bunch of drinking glasses and broke them into smallish pieces. I glued pictures of the family to many of the shards of glass and then poured all the shards into a transparent doughnut shaped plastic mote. The camera was in the middle of the doughnut. I made several exposures and choose the ones that best illustrated the idea. I found this a very interesting way to look at both art making and understanding family, if that is possible.
“Dinner” is the title of one of your photographs in which the social aspect determines exposure, not the actual technology.
Murray: I opened the aperture of the camera when we started dinner and closed it at the end of dinner.
What was your intention behind this?
Murray: I wanted to take the technology out the process because I liked the idea of action determining the exposure time. In a normal photographic situation the technology of the camera determines the exposure time. It is nice reversal.
I decided to make an exposure during a dinner party. I placed the camera in the centre of the table and when we all sat down to eat I opened the shutter or more accurately took the tape off the pinholes. When we finished dinner and got up from the table I replaced the tape over the pinholes.
This photograph is very interesting as all the things that did not move during dinner are in sharp and clear focus, but all the moving things, like the people and the wine glasses are blurs.
Murray: Yes, but the best part of all is having the action – the dinner party – control the exposure, or the subject of the image, determine the length of the exposure. I had let the action determine the exposure, not the mechanical technology of usual cameras.
It struck me that this was a wonderful reversal of the intention of the camera. Most cameras have mechanisms that allow the photographer to adjust the camera to capture a moment in an action. My pinhole camera let the whole action appear in the exposure. It is like trapping a film in a single frame. I like to experiment like this.
Murray, thank you very much for the interview and all the best for your show at the Metropolis Photo Gallery starting 7 April 2018.
“Pinhole photography” opens Saturday, 7 April 2018.
It closes on Thursday 26, April 2018.
The Metropolis Photo Gallery, #102 – 864 Pembroke St. Victoria, BC.
Photographs by Murray Polson and Daniela Herold / Copyright 2018