Review | Colin Burke: 16 Weeks Under the Pines
Review | Colin Burke: 16 Weeks Under the Pines
Hamden Hall Country Day School
Through March 8, 2019
Last summer, New Haven-based artist Colin Burke placed twenty pinhole cameras around the campus of Hamden Hall Country Day School. Inside each of these cameras, light sensitive paper slowly exposed a series of images over the next four months. This process—the long exposure time coupled with the lensless camera—is known as solargraphy: The brilliant path of the sun traveling through the sky is often recorded as a white streak on the image, as the name implies. Burke’s show, 16 Weeks Under the Pines, brings together a series of images developed using this process from the cameras he placed on the private school campus.
Burke’s hand-built devices do not resemble our contemporary cameras. They don’t have the chic exterior of a smartphone or the sturdy build of a DSLR. Rather, Burke concocts his cylindrical cameras from common materials: cardboard, aluminum, and electrical tape. A tiny pinhole exposes a sheet of silver gelatin emulsion paper curved around the interior of what looks like a repurposed oatmeal container painted a flat black. Five of Burke’s hand-built cameras are mounted on the walls alongside his photographic images inside the exhibition. The lush and eery works that these devices produce contrast sharply with the banall exterior of his DIY cameras.
Burke began making these cameras around 2010 as smartphones began to influence digital photography. For over a decade, the iPhone has regularly released new models with desirable features, and the cameras on these phones have been likewise upgraded. The iPhone X, released in November 2017, has twin 12-megapixel cameras and a front-facing 7-megapixel camera—a giant technological leap from the weak 2-megapixel camera of the first generation. These days anyone with a smartphone can easily snap and share photos.
The ubiquity of digital photography led Burke to research the beginning of photography during the early 19th century. French inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) created the earliest known surviving photograph made with a camera. In 1826, Niépce used a camera obscura—known to the ancient Greeks and Chinese and refined by Johann Zahn around 1685—to expose a copper plate coated in silver and pewter over eight hours resulting in View from the Window at Gras. Many of Niépce’s early experiments no longer exist; they turned completely black over time as they continued to be exposed to light—an issue Louis Daguerre resolved in 1839.
“In [some] reproductions of that image, I can see a faint line arcing across the sky at the top of the plate,” said Burke, who believes that Niépce’s 1826 print is an early—perhaps the first—example of a solargraph. Niépce also referred to his work as “heliography”—both his early prints and contemporary solargraphy recognized the sun as a pivotal factor. Burke prints his images on matte aluminum plates, which allows light to be reflected off the surface of his works, and this surface also forges a connection to these foundational inquiries into the field of photography.
However scientific Niépce’s pursuits were, Burke’s works veer away from science into a fine art context. Accidents occur when the cameras are jostled, sometimes inadvertently by the weather or curious creatures. Water can also seep inside the pinhole cameras, making craggly patterns on the negative as it freezes or evaporates depending on the season. In his artist statement accompanying this show, Burke stated, “I include some of these markings left on the emulsions to give you a sense of the analog beginnings of the process.” These anomalies add intrigue to familiar scenes—the happenstance or invisible forces operating around us become present within Burke’s works.
The shapes of trees and buildings also emerge, but ephemeral visitors within the negative’s frame—people and animals—do not appear because of the long exposure time. The sun’s trajectory is blazed into the negative, shifting as the season progresses. His works emphasize the passing of time, but through a cosmic, less corporeal perspective. The impermanence of our bodies often makes us aware of the transience, but Burke’s works zoom out from this deeply personal experience of time, uniting viewers through a more universal experience of space.
“These images are of a view that doesn’t really exist in the now,” Burke explained. Still, his works are documentary. Burke does not edit the negatives; they’re scanned. Chemical processing would destroy the images. The works in the show with warmer tones are reproduced directly from the negatives, printed upside down as they are oriented inside the pinhole cameras. The paper he uses is sensitive to blue light, so when the colors of the negatives are digitally inverted, the works are transformed to the cool palette. These lush blues and greens relate to the natural colors of the landscape especially at night or early morning.
Understanding Burke’s process provides insight into his practice, but he wants viewers to experience these works as objects, too. Photography, as many of us perceive it, is chained to the observable world, but Burke invites us “to imagine the things we don’t see, the things that did happen or could have happened in front of the cameras during the exposure time.”