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From bath-as-camera to camera-as-thought-experiment

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Steven Pippin describes the philosophical and practical journey that brought him to his photograph Non

Obsessed with photography as a child, artist Steven Pippin grew up asking existential questions about why we take pictures at all. This led him to create ‘meaningful’ photos with self-made cameras to take a very specific photograph. He began with a naked self-portrait taken – literally – by the bath using the plug hole as the iris, but things were to get more complex. A fascination with the pioneering time and motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge was conflated with the development process itself. ‘Laundromat-Locomotion’ was an artwork that turned 12 commercial washers into cameras, with the exposure on the back of the drum and the glass door as the lens. Even the negatives were developed ‘in-drum’, adding the chemicals as the rinse cycle, to come up with an eerie, scratched sequence of images of a customer (Pippin himself) that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Muybridge’s time. It was nominated for the 1999 Turner Prize. 

Older now and more philosophical, Pippin is still dogged by the same questions.  He is irked by the sheer profligacy of images; the millions of photos of the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben led him to muse on the mediocrity of the act of recording. It made him wonder by how many times the weight of analogue photos of these sights would outweigh the building itself. Digital media didn’t help either. A full hard drive may weigh only fractionally more than an empty one but there’s a calculable carbon cost in the servers that store our selfies and electron microscope scans; pixels incrementally working away at the ice sheets.

His image Non is a conceptual re- conciliation with the medium: a reductio ad ­absurdum that is, in its way, a form of perfection. Contrived of four mirrors that reflect the exposure back round into the camera to be born again in the film chamber, this is photo­graphy inverted on itself; a camera as a thought experiment, explains Pippin. ‘It makes a photograph of the point that records the ­photo... producing an idea of the photograph.’ 

And what does he imagine this cradle-to-cradle photo might look like? ‘Of course, the image would be black,’ he says, adding, in case there was any uncertainty, ‘just a very particular form of it.’

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