Pinhole photography, at its heart, combines the most low-tech materials with the highest ideals of art. Nowhere can that be better seen than in Ben Conrad’s pinhole suit.
Lately, the only place to see it has been the Conservation Lab behind the museum’s administrative offices. There, Casey Mallinckrodt, an intern for the Conservation Department of the Museum of New Mexico, has painstakingly repaired cameras that consist of little more than cardboard, duct tape, electrician’s tape and glue. In 1994, Conrad used Velcro to affix 125 of the rickety cameras to a pair of Big Ben coveralls and a motorcycle helmet. Working with assistants in a darkroom, he loaded the cameras with film. His helpers covered him with a tarp and ferried him outside, where they lifted the tarp to expose the film. Quickly covering him again, they returned to the darkroom to develop the multi-eyed vision of his surroundings.
As Conrad explained the purpose in 1995: “The pinhole suit is an experiment to see what it would look like if the pores of the human skin were camera apertures. … (I) want to photograph on locations in public areas that are under surveillance, such as banks, airports, parks and grocery stores. With the pinhole suit I’m exposing myself and exposing the film. Where the 35mm is a spectator, the pinhole suit is both spectator and spectacle.”
Caroline Lajoie, designer of the exhibition, Poetics of Light: Pinhole Photography, opening April 27, has devised a way to display the suit on a mannequin surrounded by the images it took.
As basic as Conrad’s materials may have been, nothing goes on exhibit without conservators taking a serious look at them. Mallinckrodt did just that, even subjecting various parts of the suit to spectral examination, solubility tests, and Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy. Knowing the suit’s roots, her report almost reads scientifically tongue-in-cheek: “The motorcycle helmet is structurally sound. … There are areas of fine cracking in the outer layer of plastic that may be the result of impact or deterioration of the material, but these cracks do not impair use in this assembly.”