Truck-Sized Pinhole Camera Captures the Great American Panorama

Artists traveled around the US with a pinhole camera embedded inside a 20-foot shipping container. Now, the photos taken during a six-year road trip are on view at MASS MoCA.
November 1, 2016, 1:45pm
Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Richard Nielsen, and Tristan Duke). Liminal Camera. Adaptive Re-use of the standard unit of global trade—the shipping container at de Young museum, 2013. ©2013 Metabolic Studio LLC

Photographs made by and in a dark-room/camera complex that traveled across the USA go on display in a new show at MASS MoCA. Liminal Camera: Drought presents the photographs made with the so-called Liminal Camera, Metabolic Studio's 20-foot shipping container containing a pinhole camera and built-in darkroom. Led by Lauren Bon, the Metabolic team traveled with the camera for the last six years. Bon, alongside Richard Nielsen and Tristan Duke of Metabolic Studio's Optics Division, were researching the photochemical properties of naturally occurring substances, including ink made from the silver oar in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, gelatin made from local cattle, and developing agents formed from native plants and mineral sediments of the Owens Valley.


Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Richard Nielsen, and Tristan Duke). Dead Cottonwood by Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, 2014.. Lakebed Developed Gelatin Silver Liminal Print. [LBD.2014.2] [2014.7785]. ©2014 Metabolic Studio LLC

Transported by the flatbed truck, the group worked inside of the darkroom daily, sometimes producing negatives up to 12' long and 6' high. Even the name "liminal" refers to the immediacy of the threshold between the reality and the produced photographic material.

The images at MASS MoCA focus on the Owens Valley in eastern California, approximately 200 miles from LA. The valley provides 35% of the city's water, resulting in a dry, technogenic climate. The project has technically been gonig on since 2006, when Bon drove a tanker truck of water from LA to the valley and deposited it back in the lakebed. For the 100th anniversary of the LA aqueduct, which still takes water from the Owens Valley, Bon led 100 mules on a 28-day journey, tracing the entire length of the road.


During the project in the Owens Valley, the team searched for photoreactive elements and found a small oasis: a crimson-colored pool of water in the middle of a dry lakebed. Miraculously, this pool was a concentrated source of a chemical fixer essential to the photographic process. By drenching the photographs in the pool, the team achieved more than simply 'fixing' the photographs—the artists transformed them. The photographs of the landscape are literally saturated by the chemical composition of the Valley, making Liminal Camera a photographic project MASS MoCA calls “literally of the land.”


Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Richard Nielsen, and Tristan Duke). Owens Dry Lake Bed, hotbed of extremophiles sources for use as photo-fixatives. © Metabolic Studio LLC

Prints from the Liminal Camera are on view at MASS MoCA through November 27. Click here for more information.


Pinhole Cameras Made from Twigs and Dirt Capture Hazy Landscapes

This Book Doubles As a Working Pinhole Camera

How To Catch A Thief Using A Pinhole Camera