Photo Essay

A Circular Vision

Bob Preston's pinhole images remind that sight is limited, and time is a blur.

By Rick Raxlen 8 Sep 2005 | TheTyee.ca

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[Editor’s note: Over a year ago The Tyee’s site crashed and we lost some stories, including a photo essay showcasing the pinhole-like photos of Bob Preston. Since then he has expanded his work and exhibited it to enthusiastic reviews in Winnipeg and Nanaimo. As we restore his images to The Tyee, we include a new essay keying off Preston’s exhibit, in May, at the Nanaimo Art Gallery.]

The old man across the street had suffered an industrial accident or war injury: something had exploded and blown the vision from the middle of his eyes away. His vision remained, but only around the edges of his eyes. He had a limited view based on what the edges of his eyes saw/sensed.

My sister-in-law in California has RP (Retinitis Pigmentosa). Her vision is limited. It’s like looking through the end of drinking straws to straight ahead imagery. She cannot see in the dark at all and rarely goes out without her husband’s guidance; she is in some ways crippled (mostly, by her image of her self as a helpless person).

In old cartoons and movies, there was an effect. Iris In or Iris Out. Mostly Iris In was used: the screen got black, but in a way in which the image in a circle got smaller and smaller until it disappeared. I like that effect and use it in my animation sometimes.

Faulty light, fragile memory

Bob Preston, a Victoria-based photographer, has been influenced by folks like Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank. In this new work condensing about four years of photographs, exhibited this spring at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, Preston explores the world through a lens darkly constructed/construed. He buys old lens or whole old cameras off of eBay and fits them on to homemade boxes of wood or plastic.

Bob writes in the exhibit’s catalogue about his work, about how viewer’s eye moves within the circle of the image, how the method of reading the photo dictates the emotional response. He writes of memory.

For me the work is about the world closing down suddenly, disappearing quickly. Subjectively, it’s as if he got into the heads of people fading out, passing away, disappearing from the earth. (It has some elements of Chris Marker’s seminal La Jetee, a 1958 film, which posits a lost world.) The light is faulty and rendered obsolete; where we go, when we go, there will be no light, and this is what we see: Pictures from people already gone over. Something has happened to them already and these are the last images they saw and are sending back to us, their loved ones, still here on earth.

There is the impression of speed, of movement, of motion. The antique lens seems to distort. The pinhole gives an odd view: In a photograph of three people and a snowman, the snow seems to be melting as we watch. It seems to be moving away from us. There is a velocity of relativity in the image, the time-space continuum expressed by the curved lens, how it portrays light and space. We think to ourselves: Is light curved or straight?

Without striving to achieve it, Preston very gently, very quietly reminds the viewer of the impermanence of all: of us, them, existence, sudden departures, flight, deprivation. By virtue of depriving us of much of the ordinary information supplied in most photo work, Preston toggles some visual switches we no longer are called upon to use. As recently as 125 years ago, we were always peering through the dark, through a fog, through some imperfect lens, without electric light, sans the necessary illumination, to perceive accurately whether it was a friend or a foe moving toward us.

Lost images

Another photograph in the show: An old woman waits at a bus shelter; there are some rain drops on something -- the lens, the shelter? She sits in a dim circle of light. It must be a rainy morning in Victoria; she looks like an oldster in a glassy, those old globes filled with snow and Santa or water and fish. Preston’s image is a close-up, even though it’s taken from fifty feet away. It is an emotional close-up taken from far away. We intuit, as well as view, the emotional landscape, even though 80 percent of the frame is black.

Somewhere, on a high hill on a mountain coast road, a view from behind the touristy totem pole. Again there is just a circle of imagery . . . a man and wife . . . a guy on a motorcycle . . . it’s as if someone back from the dead, is standing/hiding behind the great wings of the totem, waiting for a lost love. Maybe they used to rendezvous at this spot; maybe it was illicit. These images are from the Lost Letter Department of the Image Post office. They were sent, mailed, stamped and addressed, but now linger in some image purgatory. RETURN TO SENDER. NO LONGER AT THIS ADDRESS. MOVED ON. LOST IN THE ETHER.

On Beach Drive, which circles Victoria along the strait and ocean bluffs, there is perched a lonely phone booth. Poets and sad lovers make calls from it in the middle of the night or early morning. It is set on a hill with a 270 degree view of the strait. You could talk to the gods from that phone. Early one morning, after several passes at capturing that same phone booth, Preston happened on this misty mirage and requested a passing human to enter the tableau. This phone booth is where you can phone missing persons, or runaway children or long lost hopes; here you hear the ocean and sense the light rising from the ocean and the voices from the nearby cemetery jam the lines.

Perhaps more than anything else, these appear to be images of what I would term “unofficial sites”.

A wooden pole with a piece of paper tacked to it (some kind of obscure message that is unreadable?) A meadow’s edge (our youthful follies?) A dump truck full of rocky dirt seen from a double-decker bus (a mobile grave site?) Dark fences, dark passing car, sheds, a back lane (memory lane?)

Ethereal and bright at the same time, Preston’s photos bid us to hurry along and find some important task we have left undone. Tell her you love her. Make him a cake. Take that trip. Take that breath.

Rick Raxlen is a filmmaker who is exploring avant-garde animation. He lives in Victoria.

Bob Preston is a photographer based in Victoria whose work has been shown and collected nationally and internationally. His current work explores the subtleties of low tech cameras and silver based photography.  [Tyee]

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