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PEEPING THROUGH PINHOLES : Crude Cameras and Their Strange, Charming Images on View at OCC

February 21, 1991|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Return with us now to the thrilling days of low-tech, when a kid could become a photographer simply by asking Mom for an empty oatmeal box. Nowadays, a surprising number of artists in the United States and abroad have taken to the strange and simple world of pinhole photography, subject of a sweetly offbeat show at Orange Coast College Art Gallery.

A pinhole camera consists of nothing more than an enclosed space with a small hole (generally made with a pin) and photographic paper to record the image. As Orange Coast photography instructor John Upton writes in a wall text, pinhole photography is "not a record of a decisive moment but a layering of many moments."

The "slo-mo" effect of lengthy exposures that capture movements over a period of time account for much of the charm of the pinhole process. So does the sense that the world is somehow flattening out and letting people spill over the edge. (Pinhole cameras don't allow the photographer to focus on a specific portion of the view. The relative clarity of the image depends on the diameter of the pinhole and the distance between the hole and the film.)

The show, curated by photographer Peggy Jones, includes photographs as well as pinhole cameras made out of such things as a chocolate drink powder box, a box of detergent and a metal pretzel can. The weirdest camera on view is Thomas Bachler's mouth--in which he held pieces of film to produce vague, light-filled self-portraits.

Darryl Curran's entire piece is a camera built into the gallery walls that records student life on the pathway outside as vague black or white shapes. This imprecision deliberately emphasizes "the mystery of photography," as Curran writes in an accompanying statement.

The prints in the exhibit tend to have a slippery, off-balance look. Just what is going on in these hit-or-miss collisions of objects and light is often unclear, and the work as a whole is uneven and frankly experimental. But the range of themes speaks well for the flexibility of the medium and the adventurousness of the photographers.

Marcus Kaiser peers at the flux of pedestrians on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Eric Renner makes two-hour-long exposures of ghostly shapes with a camera positioned one-half inch under water. Julie Schachter photographs herself ironing in the kitchen while watching the soaps--a scene in which the stove seems to rush at the viewer and Schachter's nude body becomes a fleshy blur.

Nancy Spencer and Rebecca Wackler capture hallucinatory moments from a modern play about the Gospel of Mary, one of the heretical "Gnostic Gospels" written by early Christians who believed they had intuitive knowledge of spiritual matters. The photographs show the actress playing Mary posed in what appears to be a series of dream states in nature. In one shot, she is nude, pinioned between two giant rocks; in another, she clings to a tree trunk.

Jones' piece is an image of a Jizo sculpture--a Japanese patron saint and guardian of children--enclosed in a light box. Viewers have to stoop to see it, thus imitating the reverential posture of a worshiper.

There is even an eight-minute film by Jay Bender, made by replacing the camera's normal lens with a pinhole. The story seems to have something to do with a spurned lover, but the fun lies in inching our visual way over the hills and valleys of the lovers' bodies, as seen by the plastic pilot of a tiny plane flying close to the sun.

Accompanying the exhibit is a handmade, limited-edition catalogue with work by each of the 13 artists--a handsome production that preserves the quirkiness of the subject while also offering useful information.

Jones will give a free talk about the exhibit on Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. in the Fine Arts Lecture Hall, Room 116. She also will lead a pinhole photography workshop on Feb. 23 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Art Center Building, Room 110. The fee will be about $20. For more information, call the fine arts department at (714) 432-5629.

What: "Oracular Orifices: An International Survey of Contemporary Pinhole Photography."

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, through March 16.

Where: Art Gallery, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: Take Fairview Road exit from San Diego Freeway and drive south. The college will be on your right; most convenient parking entrance is off Merrimac Way.

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to call: (714) 432-5039.

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