Exhibition Review: Coastal Pinholes by David Tatnall

Eagles Nest Beach. Cape Paterson

Australia’s fabled inland sea might be less of a myth than you might imagine, if only by the grace of a series of striking images on display in a country town in Victoria. David Tatnall’s current exhibition of pinhole photographs at the Gold Street Studios at East Trentham is a startling reminder of the island mentality that runs through our national consciousness, the coast-hugging anxiety that encourages us to want to claim our own fixed corner of this vast fragile land.

Coastal Pinholes: Twenty searing black-and-white photographs, of locations ranging from as close to the city as Point Cook and as remote as Erith Island in Bass Strait, all made with Tatnall’s trademark hand-crafted technique, is on show at Ellie Young’s gallery until the first of December.

Coastal Pinholes Exhibition

The line between the land and the water is made surreal by the long exposures of these photographs, suggesting the ages of time that have added up to make the shapes that they hold for us now. Even the man-made structures in some of the images are shown just as they might have been found at any point in their history. The water, the weather, has made of them the traces of use and meaning that can still be seen, now that they are no longer needed for their original built purpose.

In conversation with David Tatnall on the eve of the opening of the exhibition at East Trentham, I asked about the appeal of pinhole photography:

What led you towards making and putting together this series of photographs?
I’ve always been drawn to the coast for making photographs; and this really came about because I was Artist-in-Residence at a school camp near a place called Point Ricardo, which is in the Cape Conran Coastal Park, a favourite place of mine to make photographs. I visit that school four times a year, so I’ve been there a lot. I’ve been making a lot of pinhole photographs of that section of the coast; and I guess I just extended that to make a bigger and broader series of photographs of the coast.

What would you like people to see in these pictures, or realise how and why they were made to show their subject in a particular way?
What these are really about is more the passage of time, rather than being a record photograph of a particular place. I would have been quite happy just to call this exhibition Untitled, rather than drawing attention to where they are. Inevitably people will ask where they are, so it’s easier to put place-names on them. It’s more about being in that landscape for a period of time: the photograph of Point Ricardo that shows a horizon and a blurry foreground, which is a wave, a photograph made over forty minutes, is as far removed from a record photograph or a reportage photograph of that place as you can imagine. In that length of time, the only thing that stays visible is the horizon, a straight line. The sky’s completely blurred, the water is completely blurred: it is about time, rather than about the place.

How do you talk to people about what you’ve done, why you’ve done it, what the image that you’ve made is about?
Their first reaction, when they get close, is: “They’re not sharp!” My reaction is: “Look at the whole photograph; ignore the fact that there’s no sharpness, but look at the way that time has passed while the photograph has been exposed.” I often show people photographs but don’t tell them that it’s a pinhole photograph. I’m just hoping that people look at these photographs and are moved by the images themselves, rather than the fact that they were made with a wooden box.

I generally get two reactions when people see me with a pinhole camera: one is to avoid me totally, because they think, “Here’s a strange man standing with a wooden box and a tripod – he must be dangerous”; the other is, “I don’t know what he’s doing. Let’s go and ask.” I tend to carry a pinhole photograph with me in the camera bag, and pull it out and say, “This is the sort of thing that I’m achieving”; and the reaction inevitably is, “We didn’t think that’s what it would look like.”

Steamer Jetty

What continues to drive you in your practice of traditional photographic techniques?
The images that I can make with those cameras are the images that I want to make. I’ve tried having some photographs reproduced digitally and they look very different, but not the look that I want. So I’m achieving what I want using those cameras, with film and photographic paper. And what I’m finding interesting is that the more I experiment, the more I find out how a different photographic paper responds to different developers and different toners.

One of the photographs shows a shadow of human presence, the trace of someone’s movement from the middle to the right of the frame as he follows a path between two stands of coastal tree growth on the way to Cape Schanck. As the odd image out it serves to highlight the point of all of the photographs: time takes time, wherever it takes place. The overall effect is haunting, seeming to be the ghostly gathering of edges of the country as it slips away into the sea. It can take a long time to look at any of these photographs, so much do they demand of the viewer if they are to be seen with a clear and patient eye.

I also asked Ellie Young, the owner of the Gold Street Studios, about the images and the craft that went into their making:

What do you see as the virtue or the value of these kinds of photographs?
It’s a reflection of something done with passion, which David clearly does; and it’s the fact that he can allow time to gather more of the landscape, which is what the pinhole does. It gives you more than one fraction of a second; it gives you a number of moments.

What do you view as the changing practice of or regard for photography – what have you noticed about people who are practicing traditional photography or becoming interested in it, and how they’re coming to realise what it is and what it can do?
I think that people are looking for themselves: “something I’ve made”. All digital [photography] is created by somebody else – all the controls are by somebody else. Once you step into the world of film you start making decisions about film, about how you expose, the paper that you print on. That gives people a way of feeling about photography, and about themselves. The more conscious the process, the more interested people are. People are so hungry for that knowledge, and the ability to produce something different. It’s them: their heart and soul is put into it.

David Tatnall has never lost the habit of slow, long-range photography. From his earliest days with a camera he has been spare and careful in every detail in the making of an image, leading right up to the final choice of print.

His last word is almost an attempt to remove himself and his vision from the images in the collection, as though to say that he had so little to do with their making: “I guess the photographs are about the fact that the land is old, and time is always present.”

David Tatnall with 4x5 pinhole camera

Review by Christopher Deere
Visit Christopher’s Flickr Photostream