Underwater Mystery

Jan 8 • Art, ARTSY SMARTSYNo Comments on Underwater Mystery

Light Lure: Underwater Pinhole
Photographs of NC Piers
Thurs., Jan. 17, 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m.
UNCW Cultural Arts Building
601 S. College Road • Free
www.courtneyjohnson.net

Ocean Isle

UNDERWATER COLOR SCALE: Courtney Johnson’s “Light Lure” series features pics taken under water with pinhole cameras at various NC piers, including one at Ocean Isle (above). Courtesy photo

After making the move from California to Wilmington, artist Courtney Johnson wanted to take on a new project that represented her transition from an urban environment to the Southern coast. The result was “Light Lure: Underwater Pinhole Photographs of North Carolina Piers.” The photos were taken with low-tech pinhole cameras constructed out of cookie tins, fishing line and waterproof tape. Pulled down by fishing weights, the pinhole cameras were lowered into the Atlantic Ocean off all 19 fishing piers along the North Carolina coast.

With “Light Lure,” Johnson—also an assistant professor of photography and gallery director at UNCW—has captured the illumination, mystery and exploration embedded in the historic North Carolina coastal tradition. An opening reception for the exhibition will be held at UNCW on the 17th with wine and hors d’oeuvres; the exhibition will be on display at UNCW through February 22nd. On the 15th from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Johnson will also be the featured speaker at the Cape Fear Camera Club’s monthly meeting at Cape Fear Community College’s McLeon Building (411 N. Front Street).

encore spoke with Johnson about her new exhibition, her process and her upcoming talk at the Cape Fear Camera Club meeting, which is free and open to the public.

encore (e): How did the idea behind “Light Lure” come to be?

Courtney Johnson (CJ): I enjoy visiting piers, but I’m not a fisherman; I’m a vegetarian at that. So, while I was on the piers, I started brainstorming ways to spend more time on piers. I was teaching my students how to make pinhole cameras, as I do at the beginning of most semesters, so they were fresh in my mind. I started to wonder if it would be possible to lower one into the ocean. I really enjoy solving technical challenges, and every time I went onto a pier I started to think about how to create an underwater pinhole camera. It took me several trips to piers and a lot of time staring at fishermen, the piers, and the water to figure out a design, but I thought I had figured it out within the first few months I lived in Wilmington. I knew it would take me time to research and execute, so I proposed the project for a Charles L. Cahill grant in October 2011 and received the grant in December 2011. I did research, designed prototypes, and conducted tests from January through April 2012 and made the final exposures from May through October 2012.

e: Have you always been attracted to underwater photography? 

CJ: I have but not interested in being an underwater photographer per se. Like most kids with the possibility, I enjoyed using underwater disposable cameras in the early ‘90s, and I enjoyed looking at underwater photographs. There are a lot of possibilities with recording images under water, but until this project I had never done any serious underwater photography work. One of my goals as a photo-based artist is to create images that have never been seen before, and that goal was very present with this project.

e: What are the advantages and disadvantages to shooting under water?

CJ: Underwater photography can be very beautiful. Throughout this project the underwater element produced some amazing unexpected colors, soft gradients and a hazy glowing light. It can also be messy and cumbersome. I spent a lot of time loading film into a bulky low-tech pinhole camera inside a changing bag, fixing my cameras, building new cameras, dealing with rust, drying my camera, drying my film, dealing with the weather, but I’m very happy with the results and would gladly deal with all the downsides again.

e: Is there a particular theme this collection signifies?

CJ: “Light Lure” is about mystery and the unknown—and literally going beyond the limits of land, walking on top of the ocean to try to catch something. The fishermen on the piers are really doing the same thing I am. They’re throwing their bait into the water and they don’t know exactly what they’ll get. It’s about exploration, possibility and expanding your reach into another world. Mostly, it’s about imagining and creating images and visions that don’t exist and that you can’t imagine.

e: You also utilized a pinhole camera with your “No More Sitcoms” series; what initially appealed to you about the pinhole camera and its end results?

CJ: I’ve always been intrigued by the optical phenomena of photography, of which pinhole cameras are one. Just the physics of light and color are amazing, and the simplicity of a pinhole is appealing for that reason. It also conjures up magic and mystery, which has parallels with the ocean and piers.

e: You’re speaking at the upcoming Cape Fear Camera Club meeting; what topics will you be touching at this event?

CJ: I will be talking about the technical aspects of the project, my visits to the piers and the history of piers in North Carolina. I plan to show images of all 19 underwater exposures, as well as several pinhole exposures on top of the piers, and more photographs of the pier patrons that I took with my Rolleicord, and share anecdotes about each.

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