I want to evoke a primordial world, where there is a tension between humankind and the rest of nature.
Much of the history of photography has been about refining the technologies of the camera and the chemistry of light-sensitive materials so that they record the world as objectively as possible. Early photographic techniques involved many forms of manipulation to achieve a life-like result: braces to hold a person still for the long duration necessary to make a portrait; sandwiching negatives in order to render the sky and ground in equal detail…
But the very simplest pieces of equipment, while they may not capture the objective clarity we have come to expect from photography, have their own inherent qualities. Qualities that suit them to more imaginative and subjective forms of expression. One such piece of equipment is the pinhole camera. This is perhaps the simplest of all cameras: a light-proof box with a small hole in one side. There is no lens. Light from a scene passes through the tiny aperture and projects an image onto a photosensitive sheet of film or paper placed on the opposite side of the box.
A pinhole camera has its limitations. For example, the tiny aperture means that exposure times are much longer than we have come to expect in contemporary photography. But it also has some remarkable qualities. The depth of field is almost infinite. There is no lens distortion (because there is no lens) and so images remain absolutely rectilinear. And, given the extended depth of field, the film plane can be curved without loss of focus, opening up interesting possibilities for experimentation with perspective.
It is these many idiosyncratic qualities that drew Peter Wiklund to the pinhole camera as his creative tool of expression. For more than a quarter of a century, he has been exploring the imaginative possibilities of pinhole and other basic forms of camera in order to develop a personal language of visual imagining: his own creative way of seeing.
When did you begin to make photographs?
I was 14. I got a holiday job and spent my first ever salary buying an SLR-camera. I guess it was principally the technical device itself that intrigued me. It seemed like a fun piece of equipment to own.
But, as I began to make photographs, the technical aspects were overtaken by more creative possibilities. I began to teach myself as much as I could: reading lots and lots of photo magazines, which I borrowed from the local library. I set up my own darkroom in the bathroom and began experimenting with printing.
The work for which you are best known as an artist is made using a pinhole camera. What drew you to this particular image-making apparatus?
One day in 1990, I was in the library of the photographic museum in Stockholm. My attention was drawn to a picture in a photographic encyclopaedia. The picture had a quality that I hadn’t seen before; probably something about the perspective. The caption indicated that it was made with a “pinhole camera”. I had no idea what that was but, since I was in a library, I began to research.
The images amazed me with their tension between the mechanical record of a camera and this somewhat surreal way of representing the world. In essence, the technique was very simple: rays of light passing through a tiny hole. A hole I could make myself.
It is not so easy to use effectively, though…
True. In many ways, the pinhole camera is much less flexible than an SLR-camera. But it offers extraordinary creative opportunities. For example, one can bend the film plane inside the camera. I guess the most important reason for me to use the pinhole technique is the element of chance.
Is that unpredictability important to you?
To a degree… My approach is not simply unmediated chance. Chance is something that is incorporated into the overall process. There are lots of beautiful mistakes that can happen along the way.
Do you make your own pinhole cameras?
I work with both homemade and professionally custom-made pinhole cameras. It actually doesn’t matter to me which I use. When it is too hard to make my own camera, I buy one instead. But I definitely enjoy building my own cameras; having the control to be able to make a camera with a special kind of ‘view’.
How do you make your cameras?
Many I make from ordinary black film canisters. But I have also made more sophisticated apparatus constructed from a vintage view-camera, replacing the bellows and lens with a plate in which there is a tiny hole. To work effectively, it is always important that the hole is precisely round and of the correct size. But the biggest challenge with home-made cameras is ensuring they are light-tight. Light leaks can be an ongoing problem.
What kind of negative do you use?
Various types: black-and-white photo paper, black-and-white film, colour negative film and colour reversal film. I particularly like colour films that are out of date as this increases the possibility of something unexpected happening. Afterwards, I scan the negatives and then use a variety of printing techniques. I may make a silver-gelatin print in the darkroom or make a digital inkjet print. I have also used alternative processes such as the cyanotype. But my favourite technique is photopolymer gravure printing. This method has a beautifully crafted quality and can make dull-toned areas of the image more vibrant.
In your series ‘Mankind’ we see traces of a human figure in what appears to be a desolate landscape of skeletal trees. Where was this made?
They are taken in various natural settings: outside Stockholm; on the Swedish island of Gotland; and on the Finnish island of Åland. I look for landscapes that are a little mysterious, that have a feeling of timelessness. The precise location does not matter, the landscape is only a stage. The setting is important, but only in so far as it suggests a generic view of Nature.
And is the figure you, yourself?
Yes, that’s me in all of the pictures. But they are not really self-portraits, the figure is a nonspecific human being. I don’t even want the figure to be clearly male. In some pictures there is an androgynous quality that I really like.
What ideas and feelings were you exploring in this work?
I wanted to avoid specific recognisable contexts. Here there is a generalised natural setting with a generic human being, without clothes that might define them socially or culturally. I want to evoke a primordial world, where there is a tension between humankind and the rest of nature. That tension might be a struggle, or it might be a cooperation.
I want to create an aura of the post-apocalyptic. The mood is dark – scary even. You can imagine that there has been a great destruction. At the same time, there is a feeling of peace; the moment when you can’t go back, so you must just go on. To make things better. To make life better.
My aim is to evoke that tension between something frightening and something aspirational.
What were the challenges of being both photographer and performer?
Using a pinhole camera and using myself as a model both present their difficulties. With a pinhole camera, one never knows the exact composition of the final image. So, it is a challenge when deciding where I should place myself within the scene. Then, once I have figured that out, I have to be ready to get into position really fast. To begin with, I have to be by the camera to open the shutter. But then I must run into position so that I am in the picture. The ground is often stony and uneven, with tree roots that make it easy to trip and fall over.
But here the long exposure time is an advantage. When using paper negatives in a simple pinhole camera, the exposure times are usually somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds. This allows me a couple of seconds to run into position and then back to my camera to close the shutter.
Of course, working in the nude in open countryside is another challenge. If someone came by, I guess they might accuse me of indecent exposure or inappropriate behaviour… So far, I think I have avoided being seen by anyone while making my photographs.
This all sounds quite time-consuming. Would it not be easier to use another person as the model?
I have considered using a model for some pictures that I know I cannot achieve on my own – but having someone else around just wouldn’t work for me. When I am photographing, my mind is in a creation bubble. It would be impossible for me to communicate with someone else when I am like that.
In your series ‘Burst’, you use the Polaroid SX-70 system to create a different layer that interrupts and shapes the image of landscape. How was this achieved?
The ‘defects’ in these pictures comes from using a degraded batch of SX-70 film originally designed to render images in black and orange rather than black and white. Parts of the pictures have developed unevenly or not at all, and some have white chemical streaks. These were not phenomena I wanted to minimise. Indeed, I tried to intensify the process by placing the images in my back pocket after exposure so that they got a little creased.
What did you want to communicate through these techniques?
This was a way of making the natural settings more timeless. For example, one image emphasises the qualities of a limestone stack. These stacks are said to be four hundred million years old, but they have been changing over time and only came to look the way they do now about ten thousand years ago.
Some artists like to develop their skills so that they are totally in control of their medium. What is it you like about the unpredictability of your way of working?
So, I keep coming back to the element of chance. That’s an important part of my process, since I know that most of my images would never have been made if I had tried to control every aspect of the process.
The imperfection of these images is what I seek. This is the human element, something that makes a personal imprint. We are not perfect. The printing techniques I use lend themselves to this hand crafted type of image. Cyanotypes, photopolymer gravures, using liquid photo-emulsion, these are not the processes of technical perfection.
You have also described the works as tending to the surreal. What is it you seek to make evident in this way?
There is a tension here that interests me. On the one hand, a photograph is a visual record of something that actually happened, actually existed. But the fact is that what you see in my images was not anything anyone could have seen with their eyes. The tension is between a notion of authenticity and the understanding that one could never witness these scenes in real life.
In the series ‘Origins’ you return to trees in a landscape, this time without the figure.
I want to depict nature as in the process of being, either evolving into a modern form or regressing in a kind of Doomsday way. It is up to the viewer to decide if, for them, this evolution is progressive or retrograde.
So, you leave much of the interpretation of the work in the imagination of the viewer?
My images are not complete and closed – they are loaded and presented as opportunities. I have chosen to exclude all indications of a specific time or location or person, to ensure that they remain open to a wide variety of interpretations. Perhaps because of this, my work is generally more acclaimed in the graphic communities than in the photographic community. I definitely think it remains more open than straight photography.
[Left] © Peter Wiklund from the series ‘Origins’ 2012
[Right] © Peter Wiklund from the series ‘Origins’ 2014
I remember being at the opening of a big group exhibition which included three of my pieces. One of the pictures was hanging upside down! This was despite the fact that information was written on the back of the image that made clear which way up the image was intended to be. Anyway, I thought that was an interesting interpretation of the work, so I decided that it could be shown like that during the exhibition…
What are you working on now?
I have an ongoing series about cities. Again, these are generic cities, depicted in a way that is supposed to be anonymous and a little unsettling. It is my way of getting a little closer to modern civilisation.
I also have a new nature series coming up, this time with a greater emphasis on a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. For these I am moving away from pinhole cameras and mostly using toy cameras with a cheap plastic lens that distorts the image in interesting ways. And then, in order to add an unpredictable element to the process, I use the Sabatier technique when developing the films.
Finally, I have begun work on a series about caves. Again, there is an ambiguity in these images: caves can be places of shelter or the lair of something dangerous lurking in the shadows. Safety and threat at the same time.
This series of articles is looking at the work of photo-artists who have a different ‘way of seeing’ – one that seeks to move away from the conventions of photography as document. How would you describe your way of seeing?
My method of working is to produce art in which each image is a container filled with different potential interpretations. The viewer has the opportunity to choose their own individual meaning. For me, it’s not a question of depicting my subjects. Instead, I use the subject and setting as raw materials with which to create images that stimulate an imaginative process within the viewer. I want to make images that go beyond the subject; looking to more timeless and fundamental aspects of existence.
Peter Wiklund was born in Sundsvall, Sweden, in 1967. He holds a bachelor’s degree in aesthetics, art history and philosophy from the Universities of Uppsala and Stockholm. He began making pinhole photographs in the early 1990s and now exhibits his work in galleries all over the world from Canada and USA to France, Poland and Russia. He regularly runs workshops on pinhole photography and is co-author of the book ‘From Pinhole to Print’ (2009). Peter lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden.
photo © Christer Törnkvist
This article was first published in Chinese, in the January 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme was ‘Ways of Seeing’. First published in English at Talking Pictures in April 2020.