House Converted into a Pinhole Camera is a pivotal early work by Steven Pippin. As with a number of works by him, it involves self-portraiture and the use of an everyday structure as a rudimentary pinhole camera. However, it goes beyond Pippin's earlier photographs such as Bath Tub Converted into a Pinhole Camera, 1984 (Tate T07215) in scale and ambition. To make this work, Pippin created a pinhole camera out of a prefabricated pre-war bungalow in Clerkenwell, London. He fixed sheets of photosensitive paper to the wall opposite the front door, made an aperture in the door, and then stood still in front of the bungalow for eight hours.
The final image, made up of separate sheets of photosensitive paper, is an upside-down, black-and-white negative image of the artist and the warehouse-style building behind him. The ethereal, otherworldly effect produced by this negative image is increased by the blurred quality of the image of the artist in the foreground, a result of his minute, involuntary movements during the photograph's long exposure.
The blurring introduces a sense of time passing in an otherwise sharply focused image. The writer Michael Tolkin has stated, 'what is evoked by Pippin is the sense of time. And since time is everywhere, the more difficult the creation of the camera and the making of the photograph, the more the residue of the effort appears in the photograph as the foundation attribute.' ('Moments of Time', in Discovering the Secrets of…, pp.63-4.)
Pippin's elaborate process of making a photograph and the almost 'primitive' quality of the final image recall the early experimental work of the photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) and can be seen as a reaction against the perfection of images produced using modern technology. Pippin has written that 'the technology & sophistication of the present day camera seems [sic] to grow proportionately to the increasingly boring subject matter it records.' ('Pictorial Troubleshooting', in Discovering the Secrets of…, p.51.)
The laborious method and unusual equipment employed by Pippin hold as important a place in his finished work as the final image. Indeed, as the title of the work suggests, its subject is as much the camera itself as the artist posing in front of it. As Tolkin has put it, 'the choice with Pippin is not the subject, but the camera and the subject. The happy confusion then is between the prosaic image and the exquisite machine, or the exquisite choosing of the machine.' (Tolkin, p.64.)
Discovering the Secrets of… Monsieur Pippin, exhibition catalogue, Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain Limousin, Limoges 1995, reproduced p.19