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Thinking Outside the Box

Wayne Belger's Pinhole Camera Sculptures Put the 'Trap' in Contraption

November 24, 2002|LAURIE PIKE

Don't talk to Wayne Belger about the wonders of digital photography. The didgeridoo player for the Celtic music band Wicked Tinkers knows that old-fashioned tools are equally capable of modern artistry. While his band uses vintage instruments and ancient Gaelic song to propel world music into the 21st century, Belger spends his free time applying the same concept to art photography.

Many photographers process their own film, make their own prints, or alter their cameras to get a special effect. Belger takes the process further still: his made-from-scratch working pinhole cameras themselves double as art objects.

Five years ago, when a friend was taking photographs with a pinhole camera, Belger noted that the apparatus looked flimsy. "The cameras were made of foam core or wood and they had no stability," says Belger, who has been making art, often with found objects, for 20 years, and has shown his paintings and photos in several L.A. galleries. Ever the tinker, Belger set out to build a more sturdy, and artistic, pinhole camera.

Requiring only a light-tight box, film and a small hole, pinhole cameras are so simple that grade-school students sometimes build them in class projects. But Belger's first camera went beyond the basics into the sculptural realm; it was festooned with what seemed to be a swarm of bees crawling from a keyhole on its side, and it launched him on a new artistic track. It also gave him a place to use the objects he collects on band tours and personal trips; pieces of coral, hand-carved skulls, vintage photographs, surgical instruments and insects have been collaged onto the dozen cameras Belger has made. "I have always collected stuff to make stuff," says Belger, 38, whose colorful Glendale apartment houses several altars and collections of masks, musical instruments, candles and folk art.

"Wood Camera" is a feat of construction with almost no bolts; "Night Camera" is outfitted with two antenna-like halogen lights; "Skull Camera" is, well, self-explanatory. Belger is working on several new pieces, one of which will have a pneumatically powered bellows--a low-rider pinhole, if you will. On a table in his workroom, the sculptures look like relics from a Victorian-era museum. Though each is different, they all put the "trap" in contraption, often displaying animals or bugs in creepy scenarios behind semi-cloudy plexiglass.

Belger attributes his aesthetic to his religious background and the fact that he often participates in Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. "I was raised Catholic, and you see a lot of altars, so that influenced me." Those ethereal dynamics also turn up in the photographs he takes with the pinholes. One recent image shows a woman with 4-foot wings, an effect achieved by attaching a slide of a dragonfly to the camera while shooting. Another shows what looks like a giant fish monster approaching a leafless tree looming from the Salton Sea, a tableau Belger created by putting a fish head close to the lens when pointing his camera at the landscape. Aside from occasionally adding toner to developing solution for a sepia tone, Belger avoids cosmetic touches. "There's no double exposure and no post modification," he boasts. In that, his art mirrors his band's music--a timeless format employed to make something weirdly new.

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