The Earth turns an eye on itself

Some artists depict the landscape through paint or graphite.  And some use the land as a medium to make sculptures and installations.

Some artists depict the landscape through paint or graphite.

 And some use the land as a medium to make sculptures and installations.

But how about an artist who allows the Earth to be the subject matter, medium and creator of its own images?

Meet local photographer Mario Villeneuve.

“This is not my work,” he says, gesturing to his series of earth-toned images now hanging at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Villeneuve calls it the Gaia Series — they are self-portraits of the Earth.

“I’m just Gaia’s assistant; by digging holes in the planet I offer Gaia the chance to express herself,” he says.

At a time when 90 per cent of all photographs are being recorded digitally in bits and bytes, Villeneuve’s Gaia Series has brought photography back to its roots — literally.

With just a series of small holes dug into the dirt Villeneuve turned the Earth into a camera.

He tromped around the Whitehorse outskirts with a shovel and a toolbox; he dug holes in the ground, placed sheet film inside and covered them with a light tight cardboard sheet with a pinhole pricked in the centre.

Then he let nature take its course, so to speak.

The sun exposed the film and Villeneuve was left with an imprint of the surrounding plants, trees and brush.

It’s all trial and error — the exposures are hours, or sometimes days, long, says Villeneuve.

Sometimes the experiment resulted in a successful image and sometimes it didn’t, but that’s in keeping with the spirit of pinhole.

He used the film to print images on cotton rag paper using Van Dyke printing — an historic alternative process in which a mixture of silver nitrates and ferric salts is brushed onto paper to make it light sensitive.

Then he washed the prints in terre vert, one of the oldest pigments used by humans, to give the photos their green tint.

The images are “anti-landscapes,” according to Villeneuve.

And in a territory famous for its sweeping vistas, Villeneuve’s decision to depict what amounts to banal hodgepodges of branches, shrubs and leaves, is puzzling.

But he says it wasn’t his choice to make.

If the Earth were to choose, it would point out the beauty in its non-descript areas and stay far away from all signs of human habitation, he says.

“The planet has been around for much longer than we have and has seen a lot more than monkeys standing on two legs,” says the artist.

Villeneuve has gone through most of his life with a camera around his neck, but he began with more conventional style.

His first job was in a shop in Ottawa working as a darkroom tech developing scientific shots. Then, after moving north to the Yukon, he freelanced photos for both Yukon newspapers for 10 years.

But then it got boring, so he built a sort-of time machine and went back in search of the roots of photography.

Now his work is play.

“It’s like being a kid again,” says Villeneuve. He frequents antique stores looking for old cameras and isn’t surprised if a friend sends a load of expired film from the ‘60s his way.

In his current practice, he’s taken historical photographic processes and brought them into the present day.

It’s a movement in art that’s been cleverly dubbed “antiquarian avant-garde.”

And his current experiments are centred around resurrecting the technique of pinhole photography.

Pinhole photography works just as one would expect from the term itself. Instead of traveling through a lens, it beams through a pinhole onto film.

The images are usually soft but have an infinite depth of field, which means objects in the foreground are as sharp as objects in the background.

To understand Villeneuve’s inspiration, let’s go back in time.

Pinhole photography dates back to the 5th century BC, when Chinese writers realized that passing light through a tiny hole produces an inverted image on a screen, like the camera obscura.

But we don’t have to go that far back.

The term “pinhole” was coined in the 1850s, and the medium rose to popularity in the 1890s when thousands of pinhole cameras were sold in much the same way disposable cameras are sold today.

With the mass production of more complex cameras, pinholes were all but forgotten until the 1960s when artists began experimenting with the technique.

Anything that’s hollow can be used to house the film and, throughout the history of the process, everything has — a station wagon, a house, a tin can, a refrigerator, an oatmeal box, somebody’s mouth and the Earth.

In the 1980s, two photographers, Terrance Dinnan and Dominique Stroobant, dug a hole in the ground and filled it with 82 sheets of light-sensitive paper, which they covered with black plastic with a pin-sized hole in the centre.

Villeneuve credits those two photographers for his inspiration.

“It all came out of the hippy movement,” says Villeneuve with a laugh. “It’s a sort of DIY photography.”

His passion has also garnered him some international acclaim.

This month, he is also part of a group show Rochester, New York, which features artists who work with historical processes in.

The Gaia Series will show at the Yukon Arts Centre until October 29.

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