I read a lot of articles about all kinds of interesting things. Sometimes these things are the springboard to something else entirely. I was reading a story in the British Journal of Photography on do-it-yourself photographers who build their own equipment for their specific needs. That’s awfully familiar, I’ve done quite a bit of that myself. But that wasn’t the most interesting part. That came not from the article, but from the comments left after the article. There was one about a one-of-a-kind camera that was as much a part of the art and artist as it was a tool to create interesting art.
The backstory is as interesting as the camera and the project itself. The artist is Wayne Martin Belger, who is not a photographer, rather an artist who uses the camera as a bridge between himself and his subject. That “bridge” is often made of titanium, aluminum, acrylic, and things that are related to his subjects. Even if those things include human skulls or HIV positive blood.
Let’s start way back to explain. Wayne’s grandfather worked on secret projects for the United States Government during WWII. He was responsible for helping create the gas turbine engine and ultimately improved jet engines during that era. Wayne Allen, Belger’s grandfather, worked for GE and is listed as the inventor of the gas turbine engine on the blueprints (that Belger still owns). Allen worked with Chuck Yeager as one of his test pilots. This lineage gave Belger the DNA to create engineering marvels. His grandfather taught him engineering concepts at an early age, using some really cool homemade engineering puzzles. e.g. he gave him a spool of thread with two different windings of thread so Belger could learn how to make thrust overtake drag to create forward momentum.
Beyond the lineage and engineering training, Belger has so far had an interesting life. In childhood, he won a national championship in figure skating. This would serve him when he worked for several years as mascot for the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks hockey teams. He’s also an accomplished machinist, diver, climber and manicurist.
One of his close climbing buddies for years was surfing with him one day and handed him some gloves, telling Wayne that they were for “in case he was cut and bleeding” for Wayne’s safety. Wayne was taken aback, finding out his friend was HIV positive. His friend that for years had bled on him while climbing, etc. The friend outlined the stigma he’d been facing since discovering he was HIV positive.
Wayne was deeply affected by this, realizing he could never fully understand what his friend goes through. He decided to find a way to explore and illustrate the stigma that HIV positive and AIDS-infected people live with. As a do-it-yourself artist, he’s created a 4×5″ camera out of aluminum, copper, titanium, acrylic and the HIV-positive blood of his friend. This incredibly unique pinhole camera pumps the blood through two pieces of acrylic sandwiched thousands of an inch apart to work as a red filter. It’s the connection between artist and subject, creating a pinhole camera that’s a work of art in itself, yet includes pieces that are literally part of the subject.
He created the camera from scratch, using his workshop with mechanical lathes and mills. He uses old-school machining instead of CNC (Computer Numerical Control, basically computers handling all aspects and controls) machines, designed entirely in his head. No blueprints. The “Untouchable” camera is so named for the Dalits, the “Untouchables” in India, where Wayne has traveled many times. A repeating theme in Belger’s work is his abhorrence of “Us vs Them”, whether man thinking he is superior to nature or to other men.
His work really resonates with people. In an early part of the project, he was in conservative Grand Rapids, Michigan, working on his “Untouchable” project, and he worked with Red Project to photograph people in the area living with HIV and AIDS. He did the shoots at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids, MI. The shoots weren’t done when the Institute was closed, but when it was open, in the middle of the museum with hundreds of people watching. Belger says it “(created) an amazing dialog of understanding between the models and the models’ community”. The response was bigger than expected, with dozens showing up to be photographed and positive response from the community, even some that might not have been expected to be so positive about it in such a conservative area.
Wayne Martin Belger photographing a subject at UICA
He’s photographed people in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and now Grand Rapids. His plans are now to go to Calcutta and Ethiopia to compare geographic differences between different people with the virus in different cultures to study how location makes a difference in quality of life and survival when living with HIV/AIDS.
All of his cameras are pinhole cameras, some extremely intricate. He makes 30×34″ prints of his work with each camera, in a series of 9-18 prints. Prints from each project can be purchased separately. The camera itself is then sold as part of an installation with prints from the camera. He even has a deal that he can borrow back the camera from each collector from time to time to work more on the photographs that are part of the project for each camera. When a collector owns a camera, he or she received the #2 print in the series as a part of the installation. Belger keeps the #1 print of each series for his daughter. It’s one of the most unique ways I’ve ever heard of for an artist/collector relationship to work, keeping the camera and project alive. The collectors seem to really like this.
He spends a two months in his workshop making cameras, two months photographing with them, then two months printing. Hearing his stories of locking himself in the darkroom and having friends check on him shows the sheer passion he has for his art.
I’ll likely cover more of his cameras in upcoming entries.
His website is boyofblue.com, you can see some of his incredible work and learn more about him and his projects there.