The Shadow Knows

In Douglas Lucak's pinhole photographs,
Slavic Village is a moody, distorted world.

The Matrix
Quaker oats may have stick-to-your-ribs appeal, but Cleveland photographer Douglas Lucak is more interested in the box than in the breakfast cereal. What he does with oatmeal boxes is on display in Dream Streets at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art.

Artists practicing pinhole photography (and there are many, judging by several "how-to" books that have been published in the last five years) don't have full control over their photographs. The pinhole process gets in the way. But Lucak has taken this technique and made it into a vehicle for effective self-expression.

Here's how the pinhole process works: The artist begins by poking a pinhole into a light-proof box (like an oatmeal box) which has been loaded with photosensitive paper. Light rays enter through the small hole and strike the sensitized surface. Because the makeshift camera has no viewfinder, the artist must rely on intuition to plan the shot. The long exposure times, necessitated by the snail-like pace at which light enters the tiny pinhole, lead to shots which are often soft-edged and hazy. Indeed, even the most skillful practitioners of this photographic method acknowledge that chance is always part of the game. Not that they mind: The author of a recent book on pinhole photography wrote that he's never sure what's going to be in the image and that this is the "surprise I look forward to."

Jackson Pollock said something similar. When asked about his painting methods, Pollock said that he felt it was essential to work from the four sides of the canvas and to literally be in the painting. This way, the famous abstract expressionist continued, he would not be aware of what he was doing. The painting would have a life of its own, and he would "try to let it come through." Following the lead of apostles of chance like Pollock, Lucak and other pinhole photographers have decided that if they are to take pictures which accurately express how they feel about living in a post-modern urban world, they need to look beyond tried and true photographic formulas. If living in the twentieth century is often a nightmare, Lucak and his pinhole-art colleagues seem to say, photographs ought to reflect the fact.

So, for the forty-year-old Lucak, that means representing the urban chaos in his Slavic Village neighborhood.

He does this well, bearing in mind that Slavic Village is a place where gunshots habitually ring out at night and where 85-year-old women like his grandmother are robbed at gunpoint. Not content with simply documenting what he has called "a world not merely in transition but in many ways under assault," Lucak transforms this crime-ridden Cleveland area into a nightmarish tangle of telephone wires, withered trees, and ominous skies. Is this Cleveland, one asks, or something out of a German Expressionist film circa 1920?

For example, in a photo called "West On Fullerton," Lucak sets up a forbidding image consisting of several utility poles, a bundle of dark clouds which announce a storm, a row of houses, and a tree with branches that stretch crookedly in all directions. The contrast between the straightforward verticality of the utility poles and the unpredictability of the twisting branches is marked and gives the shot symbolic heft. Though a storm is fast approaching, this area has already felt many storms. The many utility poles promise stability, but the withered tree suggests that verticality (and the order that it implies) is a lie.

As elsewhere in the exhibit, Lucak here manages to wring meaning from the collision of a few chosen objects. Although Lucak's camera has no viewfinder, and he's not sure of what the resulting image will be, he has seen the contrast between tree and utility pole. Pinhole photography, then, is not all accident — it just places a premium on the artist's ability to see connections on a large scale. The subtlety is not in the detail of the objects themselves (tree, utility pole, cloud) but in why those particular objects have been chosen for treatment. The most obvious parallel for this strategy is Picasso's inspired riff on two simple objects, a bicycle handlebar and a bicycle seat: He arranged them to form a bull's head.

The irony of the CCCA exhibit is that although Lucak records outdoor scenes, the pinhole camera's capacity for distortion results in an artificial universe. There is something claustrophobic about the way some shots are circumscribed by patches of complete darkness. In cinematic terms, Lucak demonstrates a preference for the iris-in. An iris-in is a technical term for opening up a scene from a small circle of light until the whole image is revealed. Since most of the frame is initially dark, the small illuminated area is stressed.

Lucak uses this technique to direct the viewer's attention to significant details. He employs this method frequently but most strikingly in a shot called "Locality (Industry)." The image is of a factory stack blowing a thick plume of smoke into the sky. The factory isn't shown — just the uppermost portion of its stack and the copious smoke. It's an arresting image. The artistic lineage for such a shot stretches all the way back to the English artist J.M.W. Turner's 1844 depiction of a steam train crossing the Thames at Maidenhead, titled "Rain, Steam and Speed." This work was not merely a glorification of the New Age of Steam, but also a reminder that technological progress was wreaking havoc on the English countryside. Fittingly, in the Turner work, one ruefully notes a rabbit desperately trying to escape the engine's path.

Lucak's nightmarish take on nature vs. industry is most clear in a photo called "Factory and Seedpods." Three wilting, pathetic, thistle-like plants in the foreground are contrasted with the hazy outline of a mist-encircled factory in the background. A chain-link fence separates the two realities, suggesting that nature and factory are irreconcilable opposites.

Another fine shot, called "Restricted Constellation," contrasts a vibrant patch of freely growing dandelions in the foreground with a dark smoke stack and a blurry forest in the background. The constellation of the title is formed by the foreground growth. The restrictions on this growth are suggested by the ominous background. Lucak is simple but lucid in such images. "Restricted Constellation" is not only a fine pinhole photograph; it is also an example of how an artist can lend a mundane scene unexpected weight. The sepia tone in this shot is also a fine creative stroke: The image, like the tensions it addresses, is both startlingly new and startlingly old.

Finally, Lucak's pinhole photographs suggest that proponents of this art form might be on to something when they say that "we live in a labyrinth of shadows and projections" and that the "phantasmal qualities" of these images are well-suited to the pinhole method. Photographers who choose this method usually produce moody evocations of their surroundings. Lucak attempts to navigate the labyrinth that is Slavic Village, but the pinhole method — with all its attendant problems — poses continual challenges to his progress.

Lucak, and indeed many pinhole photographers, seem to turn corners and grope in the dark, all the while making ordinary objects say more than they would say to casual observers.

The frequent fuzzy indistinctness, the distortion of time and place — these are paths designed to get at Slavic Village's personality. Did Picasso create the bull's head from the bicycle, or was the bull already in the bicycle, waiting for a Picasso to reveal it to the world? Similarly, is Lucak's moody version of Slavic Village his own creation, or is there a moody Slavic Village that needs Lucak and his pinhole camera if it is to speak? The exhibit doesn't provide a definitive answer, but Lucak shows us that these questions are definitely worth asking. It's somehow appropriate that Quaker Oats boxes have been turned into pinhole cameras. In a body of work that questions the boundaries of technological progress, it's fitting that thrift is woven into the pinhole process. Such thrift seems to say: "If you want to record your own reality, you better fashion your own tools to do it."

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