Staring into the soul of the Catskills through a pinhole

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Staring into the soul of the Catskills through a pinhole
The artist Shi Guorui builds his camera obscura, or pinhole camera, in a forest near Kaaterskill Falls, in the Hudson River Valley in New York, July, 24, 2019. Shi has been traveling the world for more than 15 years transforming large spaces — box trucks, hotel rooms, weather stations, and even a watchtower at the Great Wall of China — into large pinhole cameras. Nathan Bajar/The New York Times.

by Meredith Mendelsohn

PALENVILLE, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Sometime last summer, a rectangular tent appeared in the woods off a trail in the Catskills. Sheathed in plastic and cordoned off with yellow caution tape, it looked more like a crime scene than a campsite. But if anyone dared approach it, one small clue gave away its real function: a hole smaller than a pencil eraser facing Kaaterskill Falls, whose perilous double cascade is one of the region’s most cherished attractions.

The tent was, in fact, a camera obscura, or pinhole camera, built by Catskills-based Chinese artist Shi Guorui. The tiny hole was to allow light in, and with it, an image of the falls that would gradually ripen on a large sheet of photographic paper pinned to the tent’s back wall.

Shi, 55, who moved from Beijing to the nearby town of Catskill in 2014, had spent weeks scouting the perfect vantage point, a shady spot across a leafy gorge from the falls. The artist counts Ansel Adams as an early influence, as one of the few Western photographers sanctioned by his art school in China, but Shi had more in mind than a spectacularly composed shot of the American wilderness. Rather, he was thinking about the 19th-century British expat painter Thomas Cole (1801-48), whose pastoral Catskill Mountain landscapes planted the seeds of the Hudson River School.

Shi’s image of the falls is one of eight giant black-and-white photos on display at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site — Cole’s home and studio in the town of Catskill, around a mile from Shi’s studio and 120 miles from central Manhattan. Each references Cole’s paintings of Catskill scenery, and each was created with a different DIY pinhole camera. The exhibition “Ab/Sense-Pre/Sense” is on view there through Dec. 1, and on Oct. 27, he’ll give a public talk about the project at his studio.

On the morning he set out to build the camera tent, dressed in bluejeans, a T-shirt, and work boots and gloves, the artist pulled out a copy of Cole’s sketch for the 1826 painting “Falls of the Kaaterskill,” held it up to the scenic vista before us, and nodded. “Same,” he smiled. Scattered on the ground were bundles of aluminum poles, room-darkening fabric, giant clips and other supplies — including plastic waterproofing and caution tape to ward off curious hikers — that he’d hauled down an old rail trail and into the woods with the help of his wife, Wenling Zhao.

Shi has been traveling the world for more than 15 years transforming large spaces — box trucks, hotel rooms, weather stations and even a watchtower at the Great Wall of China — into large pinhole cameras. The optical device works by allowing light to enter through a hole and project an inverse, negative image onto the back of the darkened vessel — no lens or shutter required.

Camera obscuras have been around long before photographic processes were invented. The first known mention is in the 5th century B.C. by Chinese philosopher Mozi. Aristotle used one to observe the moon eclipsing the sun, while during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci studied optics and perspective with the help of the device. And to the disbelief of many, contemporary British artist David Hockney has argued that painters from Van Eyck and Vermeer to Caravaggio and Ingres used camera obscuras to trace their imagery.

Cole, too, had a camera obscura. But Shi was using one long before he learned of the Hudson River painter.

“It reveals so much more than the naked eye can see,” the artist said, via an interpreter, when I’d returned to his Catskill studio, a vast, sunny industrial space in a former tobacco factory. “That’s why I’m so obsessed with the process.”

Sure enough, the photograph he’d made had little in common with the thousands of tourist snapshots posted online with the Kaaterskill Falls hashtag. Instead, the falls are at once ghostly and electrified, the white cascade transformed into an inky veil. The surrounding trees appear as roiling flames and billowing smoke — the effect of the time-lapse exposure, which recorded the restless wind animating the forest for three days and nights. It’s like staring into the soul of the Catskills. But the image also brings to mind the misty mountains and delicate ink washes of the scroll paintings of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127).

Shi acknowledges the influence of the Chinese tradition, particularly how his images cannot be read all at once, like scrolls, but he’s not actively mimicking it. He’s also not directly quoting Cole. “It’s important to have my own understanding of Thomas Cole’s locations,” he said. “I’m not just trying to copy them.” Throughout the process he became intimately acquainted with Catskill Creek, the dramatic gorge of the Kaaterskill Clove, and Cole’s 19th-century sitting room, which he also transformed into a camera obscura to capture the painter’s daily view of the landscape.

He spent more than 34 hours in the camera at Kaaterskill Falls, which required an especially long exposure time because of its distance from the falls and the abundance of green, which is in no hurry to leave its trace on photographic paper.

“Guorui’s process is so time-consuming and laborious, and he does that intentionally,” Kate Menconeri, director of exhibitions and collections and curator at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, said the morning we joined him in the woods. “He could be shooting a thousand pictures of Kaaterskill Falls with a digital camera.”

Shi, who began taking pictures with a point-and-shoot camera, first came across pinhole photography in a Time Life volume called “The Art of Photography” that he found in China. He saved up half his annual salary to purchase the book. But the real turning point came in 1998, when he survived a tragic car accident on a Chinese expressway. He lost a close friend and, in a flash, his life, and art, were forever altered.

“It made me slow down and realize how fleeting life is,” he said. “It really affected the way I see the boundlessness and infinity of nature, what’s permanent and what might not be.” The pinhole process suited his shift in perspective, and in 2002 he began working almost exclusively in the medium. Because moving objects vanish during a long exposure, even the kinetic pace of a city relaxes. His photos of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Times Square, for instance, are stunningly quiet, as if hit by a heavy snowfall. Similarly, the Kaaterskill Falls photo renders the boisterous recreationists that swarm the site daily during the summer months as a shadowy mass.

“When I first saw Guorui’s work, I was blown away by how relevant it was to the things that mattered to Thomas Cole — the landscape, history, time,” Menconeri said. The painter, too, edited out the tourists flocking from the city for a taste of the wilderness, as well as the viewing platform and guardrail that had been installed for their safety. Cole inserted a small figure of a Native American in the grotto, although by 1826 most tribes had been relocated to the West.

“Both artists, working in different centuries, wrestle with the impact of rapid development and how to balance the built and natural world,” Menconeri said. The two witnessed their surroundings transforming at breakneck speed during eras of unchecked economic expansion — Cole in England and the United States during the early-19th-century industrial revolution, and Shi in China following the free-market reforms of the late 20th century.

“Cole actively used his paintbrush and pen to advocate for the protection of the natural world,” Menconeri said. As he lamented in a letter to a patron in 1836, “The copper-hearted barbarians are cutting all the trees down in the beautiful valley on which I have looked often with a loving eye.”

That the artists both found their place in the town of Catskill is a coincidence. “I feel like it might be fate,” Shi said. The commission from the Thomas Cole Historic Site came after Menconeri heard that a local artist was making large-scale pinhole landscapes. She arranged a studio visit in December 2018. “I walked in and his table was covered with books on the Hudson River School,” she recalled.

Shi had taken an interest in Hudson River School painter Albert Bierstadt, also known for sweeping landscapes of the American West, including “View of Donner Lake” (1871-72). He saw that painting in the collection of the de Young Museum in San Francisco and reimagined it via pinhole camera in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2013 that he visited the Catskills while in New York for a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that included one of his images of Shanghai. He soon heeded the siren song of the Catskills, just as Cole had.

“He told me something very moving,” Menconeri said. “He said: ‘I’m working with influences from 1,000 years back, so the time between me and Cole, 180 years, feels like nothing. Seems like we are contemporaries in a way.’”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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