November 1219, 1998
Steven Pippin turns a NJ coin laundry into a playful investigation of the photographic process.
by Jen Darr
But British artist Steven Pippin prefers the view from inside those glass eyes. Pippin, whose show Laundromat/Locomotion opens this Thursday at the Institute of Contemporary Art, turned 12 washers in a Bayonne, NJ, laundromat into cameras.
Steve Pippin's Laundromat/Locomotion, # 9 and 11 (1997)
Pippin, 38, has long been interested in investigating the photographic process; during his career he has turned refrigerators, bathrooms, even entire houses into cameras. To transform the 12 Wascomat Senior Triple Loader washing machines into cameras, he hand-cut circular pieces of film and fashioned lenses to fit over the thick glass windows. His subjects walked by the machines/cameras, hitting trip wires installed in front of each machine. Once the photos were taken, Pippin processed the film inside the washers, pouring in Kodak Decktol developer and fixer instead of Tide.
In Muybridge's 1887 brochure advertising the locomotion photos, his studies are touted as "a work for the art connoisseur, the scientist, the artist, and the student of art or nature."
While Pippin's photographs are, like Muybridge's, a study of movement, his interests aren't exactly scientific. He's more concerned with recapturing the sense of wonder inherent in photography.
It's an impulse artist/Beaver College Art Gallery curator Richard Torchia understands well. Torchia, who works with camera obscura and pinhole photography, will give a talk on Nov. 19 in conjunction with the exhibit.
"I feel that when photography was announced officially by Daguerre in France, when they finally figured out a way to fix these images on paper and glass, it put an end to a fascinating history, a history as old as time," says Torchia.
The history Torchia is talking about is pinhole photography, which, in its most raw form, can be witnessed on the ground below a tree at any time, but most easily during a solar eclipse. The spaces between the leaves are the "pinholes," projecting little fingernail-shaped patches of light on the sidewalk.
"Images are around us all the time. We would see them better if we were in darker spaces."
Pippin has developed numerous playful variations on the idea of a pinhole camera.
On the phone from his London apartment, he explains how he got started: "I built a camera once and I spent so long trying to find something to photograph with it, that it brought up this idea to make a camera that has a specific use, that you wouldn't have to think what the subject matter would be, it would be quite obvious."
So he converted an old refrigerator into a camera, and took photographs of, what else, meat, eggs, milk cartons.
He also once turned an enamel bathtub into a camera. He loaded film into the tub and completely covered the top, except for a tiny pinprick in the center. He undressed, and balanced himself on the tub's rim for the duration of the 90-minute exposure.
Pippin is frequently his own subject. In Laundromat/Locomotion he's the guy in the business suit and the naked guy with the erection; the exhibit also includes footage he took of himself in the laundromat, in his suit, loading up the washers. In the catalog accompanying his 1995 exhibition Discovering the Secrets of Steven Pippin, the artist wrote about the experience of photographing himself above the bathtub: "Strangely enough, the act of standing naked on top of the bathtub felt somewhat perverse and in complete contradiction to the security of lying naked in the bath, half buoyant in the lukewarm water."
If a bathtub could become a camera, why not a public toilet? Pippin, who studied mechanical engineering and sculpture, once sneaked into a tiny lavatory on a British Railways train on its way from London to Brighton, and set up shop. "It had everything to not only take a picture, but to process it as well," he says. "And it was all in this private room, this cubicle, so it's almost like a photo booth."
His initial idea for using washing machines came from an observation.
"When you are sitting in front of a machine," explains the soft-spoken Pippin, "when you do your laundry, you sit there and watch this machine. Originally, I felt that was a little bit like watching television. Even though there's just rubbish, nothing really happening, it's just this hypnotic connection that keeps your mind occupied."
He started putting movie cameras into machines, then realized that the machine could be adjusted to make a photo itself.
In 1989, he created Launderama (Ipso Facto), which was essentially a nine-minute film of a washing machine going through a complete cycle, shot from the outside. When he finished filming, he processed the film in the washer.
"I like the idea that this would give you a film which somehow was not only looking at the image, but also the experience of being inside the image," he says. "[The process] was a complete closed loop."
His initial studies with washing machines spawned the idea for Laundromat/ Locomotion.
But the Muybridge connection just came to him: "It was an idea which had seemed obvious to me when I saw a row of 12 machines in America. I thought I could do something similar to a Muybridge study." (Many of Muybridge's photographic studies were done in series of 12.)
In order to take the locomotion pictures correctly, he needed a facility that had 12 washers in a row. He searched for a laundromat in San Francisco, with no luck. "They weren't keen at all on the machines being used," he says, "let alone horses going into the laundromat." After two years of searching for the right space, he finally found the Bayonne Giant Laundromat, on the corner of Andrews and Avenue C.
Aside from his fascination with making cameras out of unlikely objects, Pippin also finds the seedy nature of laundromats intriguing.
While shooting the horse series, says Pippin, the animal defecated on the floor. And everyone just went about their folding and washing.
"They're quite messy, laundromats, anyway, so it didn't really seem out of place. I was very surprised; the horse didn't seem out of place. Maybe that's just American people. They are sort of used to everything."
In the 1850s, Eadward Muybridge moved from Kingston-on-Thames, England, to San Francisco, where he became known as an inventive photographer. He befriended the state's former governor Leland Stanford, who asked the photographer to settle a debate for him. He and his sporting pals had long disagreed on one question: Do all four hooves leave the ground when a horse runs? Muybridge began his locomotion studies in Sacramento in 1872 with a $40,000 grant from Stanford and a horse named Occidental. To take the successive shots (up to 36 of one subject), he arranged a bank of glass plate cameras set off by trip wires he created out of string and rubber bands.
He had devised a way to create a sequence of images, as well as a method to project them, earning himself the nickname "father of the motion picture."
He continued his studies in 1884-85 at Penn, photographing cheetahs, camels, horses, kangaroos, elephants and deer. And he photographed humansincluding boxers, athletes and naked women, prompting some to call him a pervert. (Luckily, the "father of the motion picture" moniker stuck instead.)
Pippin's decision to include shots of himself with an erection might have been inspired by the experience of one of Muybridge's students, as described in the Locomotion/Laundromat catalog:
"On first looking at the work of Muybridge in the calm stillness and muted intellectual setting of a college library the naked studies of women thereby brought about an erection in the innocent young student." -anonymous
Pippin, frankly, was surprised that Muybridge hadn't thought of doing the erection studies first. "I suppose it was Victoriana, so perhaps he had thought about it, but it was just too much."
Pippin says he is done with laundromats; after all, he has spent the last five years hanging around in them. But he's got more ideas in the works: "I am planning this camera, which will hopefully use this kind of biological transformation so it will be a completely enclosed loop. It will photograph the material that the camera is made of, then that material will directly change to produce the image. You'll have an object, whatever it looks like, and then you'll have a photo. The change between the object and the photo will be the making of the photographic process."
Steven Pippin, Laundromat/Locomotion, Nov. 13-Jan. 3. The exhibit was curated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Preview reception, Thursday, Nov. 12, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St., 898-7108. Also on view through Jan. 3: British artist Tacita Dean's films, installations, audio work, and drawings.