Los Angeles

Steven Pippin

With magic hands and technological wizardry, Steven Pippin has transformed toilets, bathtubs, and, most recently, a trailer home, into fully functioning pinhole cameras. His recent show, “Interior,” consisted of three projects: one piece (a 40-foot photo mural and its accompanying camera) shared the show’s title and presented a twist on the century-old game of photographing the American West. Like Timothy O’Sullivan, who carted glass plates and tent darkrooms aboard the backs of uncomplaining donkeys in the late 1800s, Pippin also uses cumbersome equipment. But, unlike O’Sullivan, Pippin’s miraculous photographs of nature are upstaged by the means used to create them.

Pippin dragged his four-wheel vacation villa—finished in matte aluminum—to Death Valley, where he set up shop and pinholed the magnificent view. Inside the camera, presumably sweating, the photographer watched patiently as the scene inscribed itself on the inside of the trailer. Light streamed in, bits of brightness from outside projecting the landscape upside down on the walls. While O’Sullivan’s sexy albumen prints are tender and heartfelt, his adventures tag along only in hearsay. By contrast, Pippin makes his camera part of his work. There it sits, out in the parking lot, windows darkened, drilled with small, unobstrusive holes.

What emerged from that dark RV in the desert was a 40-foot-long negative print of mountains and vegetation, sand and sky. The blinding light had been rendered in black and the wheel wells of the mobile home were cut out of the stormy sky.

Pippin’s project is both paranoid and animistic. Everything is watching, documenting, surveying, but given the lengthy exposure times, only the landscape and the sometimes unflinching artist show up in the final document. The photographs and their ephemera are cloaked in the enthusiasm of surveillance though they are never incriminating.

For The Continued Saga of an Amateur Photographer, 1993, Pippin converted a toilet in a London-to-Brighton train into a camera and a darkroom. Five blurry, ominous, and chemically altered prints resulted, but, in the end, the guerilla theatrics upstaged the actual pictures, which seemed like nothing more than documents of a mad, James Bond fantasy that never attains the glamorous heights of moviedom. It’s almost as if Pippin were still in the process of perfecting the toilet cam when Bond himself finally steps in. It won’t work. It will never save the day; the bad guy will inevitably shit on the apparatus.

Lisa Anne Auerbach