Art Beat: Straw Photography
Most of us just pick up a cell phone camera and shoot. It’s easy. But not John Shen. He built his own camera and uses a traditional dark room – remember those? Born in China, and a longtime resident of New Zealand, Shen later immigrated to Rhode Island. Shen brings an expanded view to his art as a way of finding his own identity in the world. He’ll be part of the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency program in Vicksburg, Michigan, this September.
Shen says the camera he built is made with a view through 28,000 straws that creates unique images.
“It creates a 16- by 20-inch image, and it took me a year to hand-glue each one of those straws,” Shen says. “Imagine if you stack a bunch of straws and then bundle them up, that’s what it is. And that’s the only thing there in the camera to produce an image. It’s very similar to a pin-hole camera, for people who may be familiar with that process. But instead of a single hole, there are 28,000.”
He says the only way to get an image through these holes is to have the camera directly in line with the subject Shen is trying to capture.
“The reason why I built this is because we take photographs using direct-positive photo paper,” Shen says. “It’s a paper that is sensitive to light that I put behind the camera. If you imagine these straws, a huge square bundle, and you look through them, the image will pass through the whole of the straws. And then when I take the photograph—it’s normally done in a completely dark room—then I will affix the paper to one side of the straws on a wooden backing.”
Using a flash to expose the paper and developing it in a dark room, the resulting images have something of a pixelated quality, like the “pointillism” style in painting.
Another influence on Shen’s work is his multi-cultural background, having lived in different countries and different cultures.
“Being a third-culture kid, neither from here nor there, it’s a thing where, if I go back to China where I was born, people will say, ‘You’re not Chinese anymore’,” he says. “They says, ‘You’re a foreigner, you’re a New Zealander.’ Then in New Zealand, you see that you don’t necessarily don’t fully become immersed or accepted. It’s something that my work tries to explore. That’s why in my current residency, I’m doing a lot of portraiture and thinking about the ideas of subjectivity in the portrait and identity.”
Shen will be artist-in-residence at the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency in Vicksburg, Michigan, during September 2023.
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