Slow hand

Self-portrait by Scott McMahon
Self-portrait by Scott McMahon

The photos on the wall at Tryon’s Upstairs Gallery share a basic methodology with the ones you took at summer camp. (Remember that DIY pinhole camera?) But the range of philosophies presented nudges the show into an entirely new light.

The element of unpredictability makes each photo an adventure: Curated by Diana Bloomfield, the exhibit presents a disarming array of approaches to this, one of the oldest and simplest forms of photography.

Artists willing to deal with the low-tech but accident-prone medium are a dedicated few. The labor-intensive quality of the pinhole process — it requires a light-tight container (a box, a can, even a paper-towel roll) with a photo-sensitive surface, plus lots of patience — gives the works a handmade quality. Accordingly, Pinky Bass and Rebecca Sexton Larson create work that is intensely personal.

Bass’ pictures, which she describes as existing “on the edge of the dream world,” incorporate brushwork as well as text to explore themes of aging and death. Her “Body Nostalgia II: Belly Tears” may well be the star of the show. As with several other works in the exhibit, contemplation will reveal different levels of meaning. On the picture’s right side, the profile of a middle-aged woman (a self-portrait?) looks toward a fecund pregnant torso, which is heavily draped at the top, giving it universality: It could be any woman. The belly bulges, and the breasts are pendulous with milk for the coming infant. An unavoidable sexual element is presented here, but it is instantly recognized as a cultural construct, not the intent of the artist. The viewer is left to wonder what’s happening in the mind of the older woman: Is she a mentor? Is she remembering her own body, distended with new life? More questions than answers here.

Sewing also adds a quality of reminiscence to the works of Larson, unexpectedly but also less subtly than with Bass’ approach. Beginning with a pinhole photo, Larson incorporates elements from her personal journals and family photos, which she paints, stitches and inscribes into the pinhole works.

Scott McMahon’s interests lie in historic photographic techniques. Using a pinhole camera, he makes tintypes on black Plexiglas. The results are simply startling: A small selection of pieces is arranged on an end wall in the gallery. Some are so dark there is little imagery. On others, the artist’s face appears in a mysterious, otherworldly form, superimposed on a grid that reinforces the work’s whiff of the surreal.

Dafodils Aghast by Sarah Van Keuren
Dafodils Aghast by Sarah Van Keuren

Though wrangling with an ancient technique (Bloomfield reveals in a statement that pinhole was first mentioned in the diaries of Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu in the 5th century B.C.), several exhibitors incorporate this-minute technology into their complicated process. Sarah Van Keuren digitally manipulates and prints her time-themed works — but after exposures that can last for an hour or more. Van Keuren’s “Daffodils Aghast” was made using a desktop digital mask; in the finished work, the daffodils seem to shiver in the cold. More warmly, Christopher Sims’ color photos, taken in Mexico, pay homage to his well-known documentary work, but take us further into the spirit of that country.

“The computer is just another tool,” declares Sam Wang, who has done extensive work with digital media. “We live in this time — we should feel free to use whatever technology is available to us,” is Wang’s take. His “Untitled” shows a huge tree growing from a wall of stone. Background forms radiate toward the tree, lending the composition a remarkable energy. But despite the force of the strong diagonals, the work murmurs a reassuring serenity — a security and a permanence that creep back three millennia.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]

The Lensless View: Contemporary Pinhole Photography shows at The Upstairs Gallery (49 Trade St., in Tryon) through Saturday, May 21. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Call (828) 859-2705 for more information.

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