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Inventive Imagery

ArtsEye's Curious Camera competition proves that in photography the old is new again

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For Tucson's Rodeo Day, Jennifer Wurster's daughter picked out a power-girl costume: cowgirl hat, bandanna, vintage Boy Scout shirt and a tough-looking leather belt.

But the best part of her get-up was her can-do attitude. In "Maxi Scout," a photo taken by her mother, she's got her hands defiantly on her hips and she looks at the camera with supreme self-confidence. The prickly agave behind her is as green as the forest colors of her shirt and every bit as spikey as she is.

"Maxi Scout" is delightful on all counts, from the narrative to the composition to the technique, and it won Wurster first place in ArtsEye Gallery's annual Curious Camera competition.

The only surprise is that Wurster shot it through a cheap plastic lens. The Holga, the camera brand she used, dates back to 1987. According to gallery notes, the plastic-lens camera started out as a mass-market product, intended as an inexpensive family camera for the Chinese working class. Rapidly changing technology doomed that plan. The Holga required 120 roll film, a variety that was soon supplanted by 35 millimeter.

But a funny thing happened to the Holga on its way to oblivion. It turned out that fine-art experimental photographers liked its flaws, the way its plastic lens sometimes made images blurry or allowed light to leak in. In "Maxi Scout," for instance, whether by design or serendipity, a strange vertical band on the left that drains the plants of color. The stripe is odd, for sure, but it adds an element of mystery to the picture.

Holga kept making the cheap cameras and they're readily available second hand as well—Wurster found hers in a thrift shop. For the last nine years, the Curious Camera competition has celebrated photos shot through its unpredictable plastic lens. Entries from pinhole cameras—a lens-less technology that dates back at least 2500 years to the earliest cameras obscura—are also welcomed.

Over time, the contest categories have broadened, and now photographers are also invited to submit pix made by Polaroids, the old-fashioned instant camera that's newly trendy. There's now a fourth category as well, says gallery manager Rachel Castillo-Larriva: alternative processes, which mostly means 19th century processes like platinum and gum dichromate. And many of the entries submitted this year have mixed technologies, combining contemporary digital processes with film and old media with new.

The Curious Camera exhibition displays the three prizewinners and 20 finalists. But the gallery has posted all 155 of this year's entries—from seven countries—on Facebook. (See link in the info box.)

The photo that won third place arrived via email from Hungary. Csaba Kovacs deployed a pinhole camera to make the dreamy "Women at Bath." At the center of the black-and-white image, a woman emerges from a circle of dark shadows. A beam of light cascades across a body of water behind her; beyond are dome-topped buildings silhouetted against the sky.

But not all pinhole images are as soft-edged as Kovacs' lovely piece. Finalist Aditya Wresniyandaka's pinhole photo is both sharp and dramatic, a startling view of the underside of a massive bridge. To shoot "Hennepin Avenue Bridge, Minneapolis," the Minnesota photographer stood on the banks of the Mississippi and aimed upward to capture the bridge soaring overhead. The picture is exhilarating piece of geometry, with exaggerated perspective and strong black diagonals almost wiping out the pale sky. It feels like being under a plane about to take off.

Davey Miller, a Tucson finalist, is one of the show's alternative processors. He made a gorgeous Palladium photo, "Dysphoria 3," using a 19th century technique that allows for a range of warm tones. It's a striking, tightly framed portrait of a young man's face, beautifully lit from the left. His hands are clasped vertically across a part of his face, covering up an eye and a cheek, but unable to conceal his anxiety.

Just eight of the 23 pictures on view are in color. Finalist Barbara Macri of Tucson went for pretty in "Prickly Pear in Pink," an abstracted close-up vision of pink blooms busting out of green cactus pads. "Pink" is a gum dichromate image, another old timey style that requires a series of steps bewildering to the uninitiated. In Macri's capable hands, it also involved an array of materials both old and new, from a digital camera to Photoshop to film, to chemicals and, surprisingly perhaps, watercolor.

Macri first shot the image in black and white, printed it out digitally on film and then added color in five separate layers, using watercolor, gum Arabic and a solution of ammonium dichromate. Finally, she scratched into the colors with the hard end of her watercolor brush, essentially drawing white lines on the surface.

A fractured cottage pictured by finalist Martin Gutierrez of Brooklyn came to fruition via a similar long train of imaginative photographic interventions. For "Rockaway Beach House" Gutierrez used digital camera to photograph the old place, then deployed instant film and emulsions and finally cut the picture into pieces and scanned it. The faded, dismembered house feels like a memory of summers past.

Hang Zhang, also of Tucson, worked with both a pinhole camera and a Polaroid, the instant camera that was so much fun back in the 60s. Zhang uses both to striking effect. His moody black-and-white "Hollow Man" at first seems to be all about a pair of empty boots. Look closer and you'll see that the footwear is actually occupied by a ghost of sorts, a nearly invisible man, whose been washed out by the light and whose body has dissolved into pale bands.

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