In the case of "The Valiant," his pinhole picture of a sunken ship, the length was a quarter-mile swim out to sea and a 105-foot dive into the deep.
"I'm a dive master," Belger explained last week at Etherton Gallery, where nine of his pinhole photographs and his elaborate handmade pinhole cameras are on view. (They're sharing the exhibition space with black-and-white photos by the eminent Joel-Peter Witkin, photographic master of the sacred and profane, and dreamy paintings-on-photographs by Holly Roberts.)
When Belger set out to make the shipwreck picture, off the coast of California's Catalina Island, he was burdened by "60 or 70 pounds of equipment, including the camera, a tripod, a spotlight and an underwater light meter. And I had a 100-pound lift bag. I swam a quarter-mile out to sea, deflated the bag, and all the equipment sank."
L.A. native Belger couldn't find the sunken ship at first, and the minutes he spent swimming around looking for it cost him valuable dive time. At this depth, divers are supposed to stay under only eight minutes, he said, but he was in the deep for 16 by the time he found his quarry and set up his equipment. When he headed up to the surface again eight minutes late, he felt kind of "wacky," and had to decompress.
"I have rescue certification," he said. "I know what to do."
The pinhole camera requires a full hour-and-a-half to expose a picture, so Belger had to swim back to shore to get another oxygen tank, make another lap back and dive down again. After he retrieved his camera and all the other paraphernalia, he made still another return swim, this time to terra firma.
The reward for all the danger, the mile swim and the two deep dives, was that Belger got--as far as he knows--the first-ever underwater pinhole photograph. Other deep-sea divers have taken pictures underwater, of course, but they use standard cameras that allow them to point and shoot, and then return quickly to gulp the air on the surface. But the pinhole camera doesn't allow for speed. A basic camera obscura, it works the old-fashioned way, allowing light in slowly through a tiny opening.
"It's mostly about pure light and time, coming through the small hole," Belger said. "There are no lenses changing it. I thought the underwater shot would be gorgeous, a long underwater exposure with no reflection."
On display at the gallery, along with the camera that shot it, "The Valiant" has the ship making a shadowy appearance in a wash of brilliant turquoise. The color film was processed in a lab, the only step in Belger's complicated art process that he doesn't undertake himself. He photographs, manipulates his black-and-white prints in the darkroom and makes elaborate, one-of-a-kind frames for them. That old-fashioned craftsmanship is relatively unusual, but not nearly as unusual as an artist also making his own cameras.
Besides being a dive master--as well as a musician with the Celtic band Wicked Tinkers--Belger is a trained machinist. ("I don't sleep much," he acknowledged.) He uses his machine skills to make his pinhole cameras, a new one for every new series of pictures. Every one of the cameras is functional and of professional quality--the heavy underwater camera, he boasts, is "watertight"--but they're also gleaming works of art.
Into the airplane-grade aluminum, brass and stainless steel of the underwater camera, a seahorse and seashells are carved. An image of Yemaya, Santeria goddess of the ocean, is behind glass. Another camera is ornamented with tiny skulls carved from human bones; another holds a human heart and still another is a reliquary for a fragment of the lost World Trade Center.
Belger recounted going to Ground Zero in New York shortly after Sept. 11 to take pictures of the devastation. He was using a camera, he said, that he had made as a memorial to a young girl who was murdered in Texas--a girl Belger himself searched for as an investigator for the Find the Children organization, in still another life. A Ground Zero rescue worker asked him about his camera, then, impressed, handed over a piece of metal blasted out of the South Tower.
"Make an altar of this," the man said.
Belger did. He built a camera around the steel relic, which floats at the front. Its aluminum casing is embossed with pieces of writings from the Koran, the Bible and the Torah, representing the common heritage of the three religions that acknowledge the prophet Abraham. Belger's been using the camera for his "Sons of Abraham" series, picturing clergy holding their sacred books, outside their places of worship. The photo on view, "San Xavier," is a black-and-white of Tucson's mission church, with the priest out front clutching the Bible. Typically for pinhole work, the photo is soft and shadowy, with a light center that darkens as it heads for the edges.
The skull camera has to be Belger's most outrageous. He says the small, smooth human skull, now 150 years old, once belonged to a 13-year-old girl; after her death, it was part of an old-fashioned doctor's anatomical kit. Most recently, it lay abandoned for 30 years in an attic. Belger believes that he is honoring this lost child by incorporating a piece of her body into a work of art.
He drilled the pinhole into her forehead, and surrounded the opening with jewels in green, amber and maroon. He cut the skull in half, near where the ears would be, and slips the 4-by-5-inch film into this slot. The photo made with this apparatus is a dreamy shot of San Francisco's bay shore, with the Golden Gate Bridge seen in the distance. He's also used it, he said, for pictures of roadside shrines to the dead and of children's playgrounds.
Belger's clear-eyed use of the human body and its parts puts him in company with Witkin. This renowned photographer makes still-lifes of amputated body parts, investing them with a stolid dignity. He is probably even better known for life-sized dioramas in which he orchestrates elaborate, dreamlike tableaux of people, many of them differently bodied.
His models may have been born without arms or feet, or may have lost them to illness or accident. One photo pictures a woman with four breasts; others combine the breasts of a woman and the penis of a man in a single body. Witkin's photos can shock, but they also transcend. The armless woman is lovingly arrayed as the Venus de Milo; the transgendered are beautifully rendered.
Belger, a recent transplant to Tucson, intends to continue on this same delicate path, acknowledging human suffering through visceral art. He's working with a Berkeley hematologist right now on a project that will pump HIV-infected human blood through visible tubes in a camera. The apparatus will also bear the image of the infected man who donated the blood, and it will be used to shoot pinhole pictures of clients at an AIDS clinic in San Francisco.
"The images," Belger said, "will be shot through the blood."