Questioning the Boundaries


For whatever reason, I have always been interested in questioning the boundaries of reality. This has expressed itself in virtually everything that I have done with my life. When I was in elementary school my parents gave me a Polaroid camera for Christmas. I immediately pointed the camera at my family and pressed the button. Nothing happened. I pointed the camera at my family again and pushed the button.

Still, nothing happened.

Then, I looked at the directions and found that you have to pull the print out of the camera after each shot. I pulled the print out and let it develop. When I peeled the gooey wrapper off of the picture, I found that both of the photos I took were layered onto the print paper. This was a revelation for me. It seemed that my primitive camera was capable of compressing separate moments in time into one space. Incredible!

I decided to use my camera to experiment with the different ways that it could be used to distort reality. I would peel the wrapper off of the paper at different times during the developing process, squish the chemicals around on the paper, use expired film, take multiple exposures on a single piece of paper, and run a strip of paper through the camera before a picture was taken so the chemicals would be displaced. I ended up with a collection of strange photographs that were like snapshots of an imaginary world.

Years later I took a photography class in high school. While everybody else was taking nice pictures of their friends, I was taking close-up photographs of leaves, insects, and burning matches. I didn't take a single picture of another person the entire time I was in the class.

I was still determined to use photography as a reality-bending device. I found that a random item like a fork or a musical instrument became a universe into itself once the camera got in close enough to it. I couldn't understand why the other kids in the class wanted to take happy little snapshots of each other when there were so many other possibilities available to them.

I was hardly the first person to use a camera to step through the looking glass. The origins of photography are rooted in the occult. In the 5th century B.C. a Chinese philosopher named Mo-Ti recorded his experiments with refracted light. He found that he could create a projected image into a darkened room (which he referred to as a "locked treasure room").

Mo-Ti's experiments were based on a law of optics. This law dictates that when light travels through a small opening it does not scatter as it would in an open space. Instead, it crosses and reforms as an upside down image on a flat surface parallel to the hole.

The "camera obscura" was an early version of the modern camera. It was basically a room with an opening on one side. The person operating the camera obscura would manipulate the light entering the room so that it could project a scene from outside onto the back wall of the room. This machine was popular among Arabian scientists and philosophers in the 11th century.

In the 13th century an English Monk named Roger Bacon experimented with this idea. He is credited with refining the camera obscura. The Church thanked him for his efforts by imprisoning him for life for engaging in "sorcery."

There is also a famous story about a scientist/playwright/occultist named Giovanni Battista della Porta who improved the camera obscura in the 16th century by adding a glass lens to the opening. He invited a group of his friends into a tent to show them what he had developed. While his friends sat down with their backs to the lens, they saw a projection on the wall. It was a play being performed upside down by tiny, ghost-like figures. Giovanni's audience panicked and fled the tent. Soon after, Giovanni was hauled in front of a Papal court and charged with sorcery.

As these stories indicate, photography was used for many centuries to probe the limits of reality and to annoy conservative authority figures. As an unpopular, awkward teenager, I wasn't on very good terms with reality, and I welcomed any opportunity I had to manipulate it.

I still do.

2003 - Mike Hovancsek