Art from beer cans: Pinhole cameras reveal different views of Texas

Lately, Bill Wittliff has been affixing cameras to the following: trees; fence posts; old, rusty farm plows sitting in fields; rocks; the rail of a beach house on the Gulf of Mexico.

“Sometimes I dig a hole, tape it to the hole, where it’s looking up,” Wittliff said recently in his West Sixth Street studio.

The photos that result are layered, abstract visions of what a Lone Star beer can saw through a tiny pinhole over the course of days, weeks, or even months.

The images will be shown at Stephen L. Clark Gallery alongside the luminous gold-leafed photographs of artist Kate Breakey.

Wittliff, a novelist, photographer and the famed screenwriter of “Lonesome Dove,” is, in his own telling, addicted to not just shooting photos but making his own pinhole cameras. He pointed to a box near his desk. “I’ve made easily 200,” he said. “I made all the mistakes it was possible to make!”

Wittliff pulled out an older camera, pieced together Frankenstein-style, the back of a Hasselblad duct-taped to a shutter. This was used for his evocative photo book “La Vida Brinca,” which required a much faster film speed. He added the shutter because it was impossible to yank tape off a pinhole without a finger getting in the shot.

His newer series of pinhole cameras is another kind of adventure, of a much slower variety. “I think the longest (exposure) I’ve done is six to eight months,” Wittliff said.

The film speed — though technically this process uses paper, not film — is about 10, instead of a more typical 400. The photos are called solargraphs, and Wittliff’s cameras are, in fact, made from tallboy beer cans.

Wittliff explained how he stuffs photo paper inside the can, sometimes giving it a twist for added effect, then duct tapes any openings. “Then you open a pinhole — ‘rip!’ — and walk away,” he said.

Even a good guess at how the picture might turn out is miles, and maybe months, away. This is the part that gets addictive, he said, because it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from digital cameras. “The digital is so fast,” Wittliff said, “for me, there are no surprises. You shoot, you look, and there it is.”

For beer can pinholes, there is no looking, hardly any shooting, and the “there it is!” is a few months away and requires the use of a scanner. That’s if the hogs don’t get to the cameras first.

“Wild hogs will eat ’em up,” Wittliff said, “Like somebody got after them with tin shears.”

Rain can get in the pinhole, or people will take the cameras, maybe confusing them for garbage.

“If I put them up in a tree in September and take them down in April,” he said, who knows what may have happened during those months.

He also learned where exactly to put his beer cameras: “High enough that a cow can’t bite it off.”

Just as the life cycle of each beer can camera is up to chance and the elements, so are the results of each photo. In many of Wittliff’s images, the sun arcs across the frame, stacked in lines that chart the changing seasons. Other textures and patterns make their way into the frame, too, carefully chosen elements like a prickly pear bush, oak trees, a beach path, or Plum Creek catching the sun’s rays.

The photographic paper is black and white, Wittliff said, yet somehow tones of color emerge. “These things are so wide-angle,” he said. The sun paths almost recall tree rings. The more bands, the more time has been captured.

One picture that was exposed for months had a much narrower arc of light. Maybe its pinhole got covered by leaves.

Many of these can cameras were planted near Plum Creek and the San Marcos River, where Wittliff keeps a country house. Wittliff and Breakey are old friends and collaborators, and she, too, spent many hours at Plum Creek.

Breakey’s work for this show is more concrete but no less mysterious. She tends to frame a single object — a piece of fruit, an animal skull, a nude torso — but when these softly focused objects meet the light, they emanate a golden glow.

It’s literal gold. The photos are printed on glass, then Breakey applies gold leaf to the image, giving the objects an ethereal luminescence.

It’s an age-old method called orotone. It’s so old, in fact, that it stretches to the dawn of photography itself. The gold is applied in a way that gives the work a complex texture. There are small scratches or lines, waves of gold, if you look closely; the maker’s mark.

These photographers manipulate what they can, then leave key details up to chance. This is the exciting part of the work.

“You got to kiss a lot of frogs before you get a prince,” Wittliff said. He made 800 beer can images and picked a couple dozen. “That’s a lot of duct tape.”

“I’ve done about a thousand of these things,” Wittliff said. “You really get to be a studier of beer cans” — which cans crush by simply being stuck to a tree, which are completely mincemeat by the lightest touch of a hog’s teeth. “Feral hogs have no shame.”

Guinness and Lone Star cans work the best, apparently. Does that mean he’s drunk a thousand beers in the name of art? “The odd thing is I don’t drink at all,” Wittliff said, “but I have friends who are happy to.”

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