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Pinhole camera used to evoke remembered images of past events


Photographs by Tricia Majkowski.

On display at the Wiesner Student Art

Gallery, Stratton Student Center.

Exhibit continues through February 18.


THE ANTI-TECHNICAL PINHOLE camera has been enjoying greater and greater popularity among fine-art photographers, and the number of students who haven't experimented with some form of this anti-camera dwindles every day. MIT Senior Tricia Majkowski has mounted an exhibit of black-and-white and color photographs that take advantage of the camera's ability not to render with "photographic accuracy" but to distort.

One panel of ten photographs works as a set; together, the casually-framed images stand more as wispy recollections of past times than coldly objective records. With the exception of one conventionally framed and posed shot of a middle-aged couple (presumably the photographer's parents), the images appear just as the kind of emotional scrapbook that might be kept in a youngster's head. The photographs depict the kinds of events present in all of our memories; represented here are a set of universal childhood experiences -- a trip to the museum, a roll with Spot in the backyard, or a day at the beach -- with a spontaneous and uncontrived naturalness.

In the set of dream-like images the qualities of the pinhole camera conspire with Majkowski's choice of subject matter to create the phantasmal mystique. The always-fuzzy lack of focus contrasts marvelously with the impartial, photographic un-memory possessed only by savants and television equipment, and the pastel, muted colors are far from the crisp, electric hues used in contemporary advertising photography. None of the images depict the sort of eye-catching or important scenes generally considered as "photo-worthy" that we'd expect to see in postcards or family albums, but the link to preverbal memory is made all the stronger by the lack of catchy graphic strength; mental pictures of past events are retained or discarded according to the strength of emotional associations, not the strength of composition.

A set of six black-and-white figure studies has the gritty, painfully-exposed look typically found in self-portraiture, although each is a photograph of Majkowski's friend Stacy Swider '90. By adjusting her pinhole camera to produce an extraordinarily wide-angle effect, Majkowski distorts Swider's body past disfigurement and almost to the point of unrecognizability (because the camera seems to disproportionately enlarge the size of nearby parts of the picture and reduces the apparent size of more distant areas.)

Two photographs, however, stand out from the banal plethora of distorted-nude studies created again and again; by posing Swider so that most of her body is equally distant from the camera but for one limb projecting towards the "lens," Majkowski creates the illusion of a normal human body with a grossly unfamiliar projection growing out of it. The disquieting photographs are made further ambiguous by a few featureless shadow spaces; with several "important" parts of the image obscured by thick black shadow and horrible-looking but vaguely discernible objects butting up against Swider's body, the photographs are deeply disquieting and nearly as open to interpretation as a Rorschach diagram.

Aside from the simple ability to discompose the viewer, the pictures fail to make a complex psychological statement; compare the pinhole photographs of Sharon Ess, for example, who coined the term "worm's-eye view." Her photographs make use of the same pinhole aesthetic to classify pictures as imagined rather than real, but then capitalizes on the predigested "super-reality" of the pictures to enter the viewer's psyche directly in the same way that Gerber enters the circulatory system of infants more quickly. The resultant strong images slip past the viewer's defenses and lodge themselves quickly in the unconscious. Despite the subtle overtones of predatory violence contained in the images, the photographs nevertheless strike sympathetic chords within the minds of even the most outwardly benevolent individuals; the discomfort then arises from the viewer's inevitable recognition that he is not unable to sympathize with the antisocial positions suggested by the photographs.

The remainder of photographs on display constitute Majkowski's explorations of other widely-employed darkroom "tricks" such as solarization and high-contrast media, although the unmanipulated images are otherwise unnoteworthy.