Copyright © Edward Riojas
Creating art is a process. An idea forms. The artist chooses tools and materials, and then attempts to turn the idea into some kind of reality. Once the artist is satisfied with an outcome, the process ends.
Obviously, that is an oversimplification. For some artistic endeavors, simplicity is close to the truth. Drawing, for example, need only an idea, some pigment-laden tool, and a surface on which to deposit both idea and pigment. For other pursuits, however, the process can become much more convoluted and tool-laden. Printmaking can make use of metal plates, tools for carving metal, ink, tools to handle ink, complex presses, water baths to moisten special paper, acid baths to etch metal plates, and solvents and cleaning agents – all this for just one type of print; all this before an idea is even conceived.
|"Untouchable (HIV)" Camera. Undated. Wayne Martin Belger.|
I enjoy the process of creating art. I also appreciate the concept of messing with conventional methods to the point at which art is pushed, kicking and screaming, outside the box.
Artist/photographer Wayne Martin Belger is the kind of person who must relish having a process that is way off the reservation. His images may be well within bounds of normal artsy-fartsy photography, but if that is the only thing a viewer sees hanging on a gallery wall then they would be missing the point. Thankfully, his cameras are most often hung next to the photographs. It is then that the importance of his process becomes evident.
I first encountered Belger’s work during an ArtPrize competition a few years ago. I was wending my way through one gallery space out of hundreds showing thousands of pieces, when I stumbled on his entry, “Untouchable (HIV).” I was dumbfounded. I still am – but not so much by the resulting photograph he produced as by the mind-boggling work behind the same image.
Belger builds custom cameras to suit the subject. None of his camera bodies are pulled off a shelf, and each one has extensive thought put into its purpose. In the case of ‘Untouchable,’ the pinhole camera was designed to photograph portraits of HIV-positive individuals and no one else. And here’s why...
This particular camera is constructed of aluminum, copper, titanium and acrylic, and has a sealed system of pumps and tubes that move the subject’s own HIV blood through the camera and across a membrane in front of the pinhole. The membrane acts as a #25 red filter, giving the resulting photograph an eerie red glow.
The camera is gorgeous. Materials were carefully chosen and components were machined with precision. In appearance, the whole is a beautiful marriage of Steam Punk style and NASA engineering. The viewer cannot possibly miss the concept that what this camera contains is at once precious and dangerous. And the HIV camera is but one of Belger’s elaborate cameras.
The subject of his work is often sensitive, and Belger’s camera components usually have strong relevance to the project. Sometimes they contain elements not recommended for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Insect bodies, dried flowers, deer antlers, $5,000 rubies, a fragment from a Koran, a 150-year-old skull and an infant’s heart all found places in Belger’s cameras. His projects deal with such far-ranging subjects as infant mortality and cultural conflict. These are not your aunt’s Kodak Brownies.
Of course, the photographer could have used a much simpler box camera and a bit of Photoshop magic to achieve similar results, but that would have negated the process. And Belger needn’t explain his method in detail. The massive amount of thought invested in each project is evident in the elaborate tools he builds to facilitate the process of creating a single photograph. In this case, the process is as much art as Belger’s haunting images.
|"Roadside Altar" Camera, and two images created with the camera. Undated. Wayne Martin Belger.|