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Magic on the Playa :: A Look Inside the Pinhole Camp

“We’re not a collection of individuals but instead a group of artists working together to produce something much greater than we ever could as individuals. We’re a group of 100 or so people over the 9 years that pinhole has been in existence.”

Each summer in late August, August 27 through September 3, 2007 this year, thousands of people travel to the remote and barren Black Rock desert of Nevada to create the Black Rock City, also known as Burning Man. Home for a week to artists, revelers, people who want to express themselves through dance, art and play and home to the Pinhole Camp.

Without Lenses caught up with Yvette Pasqua, from the Pinhole Camp group of artists, to learn about this highly collaborative project and some of the unique challenges of creating pinhole imagery in the middle of the desert, in a moving truck.

Erin Malone: When did the Pinhole Camp start?

Yvette Pasqua: It started about 9 years ago in 1999 and the first project was the Burning Man festival that year.

Whose idea was it to do a pinhole camp?

Pinhole was the brainchild of a handful of friends (all guys) who were going to Burning Man for the first time to participate. They all lived in the LA and SF area. They wanted to contribute to the art at Burning Man in a unique and lasting way. Many of them attended college together and were engineers and architects and all of them had a love for art, community, and fun.

Who are the main artists involved?

I’d prefer to keep any individual names out of the pinhole description because we’re not a collection of individuals but instead a group of artists working together to produce something much greater than we ever could as individuals. We’re a group of 100 or so people over the 9 years that pinhole has been in existence. Over that time, leadership of the group has transfered from one collection of artists to another, but some of the participants have remained the same throughout. Most of the the techniques, the process we use, the materials we use, and vibe we create around teaching people how to make our art has been handed down from group to group and remained the same.

Have some years been better than others?

Of course every year is different. That’s one of the many exciting, wonderful things about both Burning Man and Pinhole Camp. Some years we’re a group of 12 and other years we’re a group of 50 people. Some years the weather at Burning Man is easier for producing our art and other years it’s harder. Some years we’re placed in an area of Black Rock City that is highly trafficked by participants and others we’re in a more quiet location. Some years we spend more time preparing and other years we need to make do with less preparation. That said, every year has produced art that excites us and makes both the pinhole artists and Burning Man festival participants smile.

How do you work in this very dust filled environment?

Dust and light are our 2 biggest enemies on the playa. As a result, we have to be careful about two main things: ensuring the pinhole cameras (large barrels) and the darkroom are dust and light tight. We repair the barrels each year using our favorite tool of choice, black gaffers tape. We build a light tight and relatively dust free darkroom inside a 16-25′ moving truck. The moving truck is the pinhole camp’s transport out to the playa and it doubles as the light-free container for our darkroom. All sides of the truck are light and dust free.

To seal light and dust from the one open side exposed to the outside, we hang three layers of Duvateen drapes in a maze-like pattern from the top of the truck to the floor of the truck. The multi-layered drapes ensure that light and dust don’t make it to the back of the truck where the darkroom magic happens. The drapes also ensure that light doesn’t enter the truck if someone is entering the truck while we’re processing prints and, as before, we use gaffers tape whenever we need a minor light or dust block.

What’s been the most difficult part logistically?

The most difficult part is getting all the materials to and from Burning Man. At it’s smallest, off-season, the pinhole camp occupies a 10’X5′ storage space. That doesn’t include all the supplies that we need to replenish each year. We need a whole crew just to load and unload the materials from the storage space and into the truck and to purchase any needed new materials for the year. This takes on average, a group of 6 people about 20-40 hours of work each.

Images are hung inside the dome at the Pinhole Camp. photo by: kikipedia (2006)

Do you set up a “gallery,” of the prints once you develop them, during Burning Man?

Yes! The pinhole gallery is one of the best parts of the pinhole camp. We set up a gallery in our 15′ diameter geodesic dome. We hang about 10-12 prints at a time facing the interior of the dome, and typically change the prints each day so as to create something new for festival participants and pinhole camp members to view, explore, and appreciate.

What happens to the images after camp comes down?

We, pinhole camp members, take some of our favorite prints home with us, but we give the vast majority (about 70%) of our prints away as gifts to other Burning Man participants. We almost always give them to either the artists whose work we photographed or to a festival participant who volunteered their time to help us at pinhole camp (either by working in the darkroom, by taking photographs, or by helping us setup/breakdown camp, etc.). We especially love giving away the prints to that group of people.

How has your process changed over the years?
Our process started with a stationary pinhole camera that we would build out of wood. It was about 10 feet long, by 7 feet wide and 7 feet tall. The front of the camera had the pinhole and we’d attach the photographic paper there. The back of the camera had our darkroom. We would encourage festival participants to come by with their friends; in costumes, in arts cars, etc. to take pictures with us.

Barrel camera in place to photograph a sculpture on the playa. photo by: Tom Davis (2003).

We then evolved to barrel cameras that we attach to little trailers on the back of bicycles which journey all over Burning Man to take photos of art projects and festival participants. The barrel cameras come back to our darkroom inside our truck and we process the images there. In addition to that big process change, we’ve also refined our process in some minor ways. These include better ways of making the barrel cameras light tight (gaffers tape and bungee chords), making the pinholes more consistent (using soda cans for the pinhole instead of the barrel material), keeping contamination out of the darkroom chemicals (labels and covers), and making the photographic paper cutting faster and less time consuming (we use a large paper cutter).

Has group participation increased since you switched to the barrel camera on wheels approach to making images?

This new approach was very liberating for us. Unlike before, where the art had to come to us, the portable barrel cameras enable us to find interesting and unique art or moments in time no matter where it is. This allows us to really work our imaginations and experiment with different compositions, exposure times and other ideas.

Have you stuck exclusively to pinhole or have you tried experimenting with other lenses (zoneplate, slits etc)?

We’ve basically only explored pinhole photography as a group, but we do take high resolution pictures of almost all of the pinhole prints each year so that we can document our gallery each year before gifting the pictures to festival participants or taking them home.

We tried a 10′ zoom lens one year that was just a long cylinder attached in front of the pinhole. The zoom worked pretty well but it was too hard to focus and determine the right sweet spot for exposure.

Is there a favorite camera or image?

Too many unique beautiful images to pick one…and our cameras are just a means to art. we love them but all equally 🙂

What’s in the works this year? Anything different or new folks should look for?

Each year we make small improvements that make for better pinhole art but most people won’t notice those things. The thing that excites us the most is that every year the work we produce is unique and awesome in the true sense of the word. We make people smile just by looking at our art and we make people feel good about themselves by learning a new skill as interesting and different as large scale pinhole art. Folks should look to capturing their own dreams and visions at Burning Man this year through our pinhole art.

Do you have advice for others wanting to create a large, participatory pinhole experience?

Go for it. It’s a great medium for group participation, as anyone, technical and non-technical, formally trained artists and untrained artists alike, can participate and create beautiful art.