By Darren Glass
Self-published, NZ$40 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

EXPECTATIONS. Often they can be the undoing of you; they can throw you completely.

I picked up A Field Guide to Camera Species and the first thought I had was that it was smaller than I expected. It’s not often art books come as a 100 page, A5. Flicking through, I realise that there aren’t the photos I had expected. Then it hits me. The book that I’m holding and confounding my expectations is actually a field guide. In the truest sense.

In the introduction Glass states that the book is a guide to “the cameras I have built since 1990. All are pinhole or slit cameras... Actual photographs taken by the cameras have been excluded in order to focus on camera making and its consequences.”

I first saw Glass’s work at a show at McNamara Gallery Photography in Wanganui, circa 2005. They were beautiful, abstract light paintings, splashes of colour on black, probably made with No.022 Cosmo flying disc single aperture.

As any good field guide should, this guide lists each camera’s/species’ common name, scientific name and classification alongside technical specifications (focal length, film type, materials used) and general comments.

For example:

No.016 Wooden Top
Stipes caput
Tractus multi foramen
Comments: Designed for maximum control with 17 sets of evenly spaced pinholes. Consecutive exposures were made so the picture of the landscape produced a continuous, uninterrupted image covering an angle of view of approximately 340°
Results: Images a little too formal and controlled. Only used seven times.

This isn’t an easy book to review. What do you say about a field guide, an impractical field guide at that? There’s no way this book is going to help you with your bird spotting or plant identification, or even with your camera collecting.

What it does do is demonstrate that for this photographer the act of making the camera is, dare I suggest, at least as important as taking photos. This was supported a couple of years back, at one of the Prospect shows at City Gallery Wellington, where a couple of Glass’s larger cameras were presented very much as sculptural works, without (from memory) any photos (again confounding expectations).

Photography, more than other art forms, relies on a picture making device to translate ideas. For many, it is the appeal of the tools more than the act of photographing that occupies them. Often it is the use of a specific camera that makes what could have been a very dull shot interesting. I’m thinking specifically of Polaroids, Lomos, Holgas and the like; cameras/films which produce a ‘look’, rather than a ‘true’ representation of the subject (in as much as any photographic representation can be called ‘true’).

To me the pinhole camera is one of these tools. They definitely have a ‘look’. And I’m sure Glass’s cameras have produced some whacky and astounding images. By concentrating purely on the cameras and not the resulting photographs does feel like only half the story. But it feels like the right half. And the enjoyment Glass gets from making and naming the devices is evident throughout this book.

For those interested, Darren Glass’s works can be found in various publications including the recentish Contemporary New Zealand Photographers (2005), and at Anna Miles Gallery in Auckland or McNamara Gallery Photography in Wanganui.

A Field Guide to Camera Species is a cool, quirky collection with a very useful appendix should you be inspired to build your own experimental camera.