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Child’s Play & War Games with Benjamin Wooten

I first “met” Benjamin four years ago, when he proposed the Building Confidence: Pinhole Workshops with The New Orleans Kid Camera Project article for Without Lenses. I was most familiar with him as an author and teacher—he also wrote the interview with William Christensen—but recently became aware of his own work as a photographer. I was intrigued by one of his series which emulates the work of Muybridge while making a statement about warfare. I asked him to share this work with us as well as his thoughts on camera making.

“Soldiering and war are such examples of this operative level, comprising activities that – while awful and terrifying on the whole – have paradoxically drawn me since childhood.”

Without Lenses: How long have you been shooting pinhole?
Benjamin Wooten: Well, I suppose I got my first taste of pinhole in an introductory photography course in college, maybe in 1999 or 2000 . . . the obligatory Quaker Oats pinhole camera project. To be honest, I wasn’t overly enthused about it. In fact, I didn’t turn back to pinhole until much later in 2007.

Old Timey Camera

WL: How long have you been making cameras and working on these series? Are you still working on them?
BW: I was enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as a student in woodworking and furniture design when I was made aware of the amount of overlap that existed between the visual and technical languages of camera building and cabinetry. My thesis work combined these skill sets, and I’ve been operating, to greater or lesser degrees, in the shared ground of photography and object making ever since graduating in 2007.

The ‘This is for real war!’ series has been developing for roughly two years now. It is an ongoing project, with more cameras and images currently in the works. I doubt I’d be the first artist to lament the ongoing fact that I seem to generate more ideas than I have time, space, and money to execute.

WL: Are you still in Wisconsin?
BW: I am currently located in Knoxville, TN. My wife and I moved here almost three years ago when she decided to pursue graduate work in printmaking.

WL: What prompted you to make this series?

OT Real War PistolOT Real War Shot BackOT - Real War MG Nest - detailOT - Real War Jumping
Images from the Old Timey camera shown above
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BW: I think a lot of different ideas led me to this particular series. To begin with, photography has always aroused a lot of suspicions for me. I’m always interested when the medium lies, either explicitly or implicitly. Initially, the idea of motion studies made with the slowness of pinhole photography intrigued me merely because it was contrary. As I worked, however, I discovered that a camera, used self-consciously, opens avenues of inquiry of the sort conveniently sidestepped when we’re simply looking at photographs. I believe the explicit artifice of camera making negotiates, in an interesting way, photography’s tacit deference to both camera’s and photographer’s disappearing act in the mind of a viewer. This gets back to some of those suspicions I mentioned: the ironic ability of photography to truncate experience, or serve as a point of disconnection. As the camera is the interface primarily responsible for this, I think it is made most explicit in the simple fact that a photographer is a witness at once there and not there. This makes me think about photographers, sometimes moreso than photography or photographs. Étienne-Jules Marey’s and Eadward Muybridge’s distinct apparatus sets them apart as more than users of photographic tools, but also of inventors, investigators, and orchestrators. In emulating them I am, in a sense, looking for a connection that honors the photographic interface as an investigative tool, even if my subject matter is somewhat inert. That is the experiential part of lo-fi photography that interests me, which I’ve heard variously referred to by people as “letting go”, “relinquishing power”, or other iterations of what I feel is a search for comfort in the absence of control.

War made an entrance from a slightly different angle. In figuring out whether the camera isn’t more shielding than revelatory, I jumped in at the level of an adult child. This is the point at which my fears and fascinations seem to dovetail around equal portions of inventive fantasy, handcraft, male heroics, and impotency in a variety of forms. Soldiering and war are such examples of this operative level, comprising activities that – while awful and terrifying on the whole – have paradoxically drawn me since childhood. At first it was playing guns in the woods, then G.I. Joe and plastic army men, then movies and video games, then martial arts, then flirtations with the military, and finally taking a look at the anxieties and control issues that drove such fantasies—once a child pretending at war, always a child pretending at war. ‘This is for real war!’ acknowledges this both in terms of the childish exclamation of its title, and also the rather adult notion of play as a form of training. This latter portion, I feel, is largely what drives the work today.

There are a number of photo-historical references I jump from as well, mostly documentary war photography both naturally occurring and staged, though always including elements of anonymity either on behalf of photographer, subject, or both. This includes the work of Robert Capa, Matthew Brady, and, as previously discussed, the conventions of Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadward Muybridge.

AmmoAmmo - Real War EasyAmmo - Real War Able
Ammo camera and two images made with the Ammo camera
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WL: I like the reference back to Muybridge’s work – how do you set up the shots? Have you made others in this vein?
BW: The shots are set up with a lot of measurement and demarcation, plus a marionette-type of device on a sliding track to provide locomotion. The 12-shot motion sequences (the most Muybridge-esque of them) were shot pretty much like he shot them at Stanford’s horse stables in California, with the subject passing in front of each aperture in sequence. The compressed motion studies (most like Marey’s work) are shot outdoors on a similar apparatus, in front of a scaled-down version of the dark sheds in front of which his subjects used to jump, run, and flip.

This is the first set of images to come out of these investigations, and I have more in the works, pulling more film/photographic imagery especially from World War 1. I continue shooting with my green plastic army men, especially whenever I collect a new one in an interesting pose.

WL: What are you currently working on?
BW: Currently, I am working on a couple of lo-fi spy cameras, the most recent one made from a Vietnam War re-enactor’s ammunition bandolier. I’ve also had a long-term project on the cusp of completion for many months now, a wearable pinhole box camera. It’s another nod to the possibility of camera-as-defensive tool, recalling cardboard forts and other grossly apparent means of “escape”. They seem to share a similar visual vocabulary relative to the basic paper and tape means by which I was introduced to pinhole photography to begin with. I liked that connection.

WL: If you could only take one camera which would you take? Pinhole or Toy? Or, Toy Pinhole?
BW: I say pinhole now, however, depending on my future look at bad lenses (with some of the spy cameras) I may change my tune? I’m less interested in toy pinhole cameras, though I’m not above hijacking their parts to make other cameras.

WL: Besides Muybridge and war photographers like Brady and Capa, what other artists inspire you?
BW: I’m a huge fan of An-My Lê’s photographs. As far as pinhole goes, I love Marcus Kaiser’s Berlin wall series, and I’ve always appreciated Jo Babcock for championing cameras that relate directly to their photographic subjects. I also find a lot of inspiration continuing to look at object makers and 3-D artists, Tom Sachs being one of my favorites.

WL: What advice do you have for people just starting out with pinhole?
BW: My advice is (in this order): 1. Purchase and read Eric Renner’s Pinhole Photography: From Historic Technique to Digital Application, 2. make an account on f295.org, and 3. download, print, and assemble one of Nick Dvoracek’s Populist pinhole camera designs.