When I was nine or ten years old I came across a drawing of a building named ‘The Radcliffe Camera’ in the end papers of an Oxford dictionary. A building called a ‘camera’ seemed strange to me at the time, but a quick flick through the pages of the dictionary revealed the connection—a ‘camera’ in Latin is a vaulted room or chamber. This was possibly the first occasion that I marvelled at the etymology of a word, and over the years the same two-volume dictionary has become a well-thumbed companion and source of enlightenment.
At that time, though, I didn’t make the next jump—to think of a camera as a kind of miniature room itself. I actually owned a Box Brownie, but even its boxy, room-like dimensions didn’t make this idea snap for me.
This isn’t a completely new thought of course, and many well-known writers on photography have made this link. In French, the title of Roland Barthes classic text Camera Lucida is ‘La Chambre Claire’ – the ‘illuminated chamber’. And this illuminated chamber, of course, directs us to both the ‘camera obscura’1 and Plato’s Cave. ‘Plato’s Cave’2 is, in turn, the title of the opening chapter of Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking book, On Photography.3 And closer to home, Gregory O’Brien titled his essay for Contemporary New Zealand Photographers ‘The Camera is a Small Room’. He says:
Besides being a small room, the camera has lately become an enormous one—a warehouse or factory in which ideas and images are manufactured and stored. The camera is four walls, a roof and a floor; it is a miniature house in which shutters are opened and closed; in which light and shade are constantly being adjusted.4
This idea of the camera being a storehouse of ideas and images (or as Kodak would have it, memories) is central to ‘The Vault’. In a somewhat reflexive manner, this series focuses on the places we store those things that are most precious to us, and conversely those very similar spaces we store the obsolete and unwanted. In the process of making the work I have visited art galleries, archives and museums throughout New Zealand – from large national to small regional institutions. But it's not the face, or front-of-house of these places that I've photographed, it's the storage areas themselves – the back-of-house vaults, archives and basements.
These interior images take their lead from an earlier series ‘The Clinic’, shot in hospitals throughout New Zealand. But where ‘The Clinic’ takes its strength from rooms redolent with the histories of the patients and staff who have passed through them, the heartbeat of these images is quite different.
These images have their own rhythm, or beat, as the stacks grow or shrink and gleam in their dark stores. There is a redolence of a different kind—the collected culture and history of those things we deem important enough to keep, and those we too easily discard. And in the end we may wonder which tells us more about ourselves.
- A camera obscura (literally, a ‘dark room’) is a darkened room in which one small aperture is made to allow light in. The aperture acts as a simple lens, projecting an inverted image onto the wall opposite. In principle, pinhole photography works in the same way.
- Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is perhaps the best-known of his many metaphors, allegories and myths. It appears in Book VII of The Republic. In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. A fire burns behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers (who are behind the prisoners) hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, which pass behind them, but see and hear shadows and echoes cast by objects. These shadows create the prisoners reality, although it is in effect an illusion.
- Sontag begins her book with a reflection on Plato’s Cave. ‘Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s Cave, still reveling, its age old habit, in mere images of truth.’ Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin Books, London 1979, p.3.
- Gregory O’Brien, ‘The Camera is a Small Room’, Contemporary New Zealand Photographers, eds. Hannah Holm and Lara Strongman, Mountain View Publishing, New Zealand 2005, p.9.