“Photography is the secret within a secret.” – Sarah Moon
On a Sunday afternoon, I sat down with Studio TM’s Martin Cheung at a coffee shop somewhere in Sheung Wan to talk about secrets. Since we were talking about secrets, it was inevitable to touch on obscure details and deep topics. In between his words, there were always apparent hesitancies, and when the occasional silence occurred, he would quietly cut the piece of cake in front of him or take a sip of coffee out of his cup. Only after then would he continue to proceed with his thoughts. Since he seemed like he was still pondering, let us go through his CV together.
Graduating from the Art Institute of Victoria, Australia with honors, he majored in fine art photography and established Studio TM with his wife Topaz Leung after he came back to Hong Kong. Focusing on commercial photography, he also designs and makes pinhole cameras. His famous work is the “duckcam melbourne” that he made in 2001. Modifying a roasted duck with holes and stuffed black and white photographic paper in it, this pinhole camera became a collectible at the “Pinhole Resource Centre” in the US.
For the past decade, his passion for pinhole photography never ceased. Actively hosting workshops in recent years, he has been teaching people how to create pinhole cameras by just folding a black piece of paper. He said, “When I do any sort of creations, I would first consider if a pinhole camera can be used.”
Martin has expressed a lot of opinions when we talked about photography, one of which was the discussion on photographs and how it can be a capsule for time.
“Every photo contains a moment of 1/125, 1/1000 second, et cetera. We might think that a normal photo reflects the reality, but it can never reflect the whole of a truth.” Martin continued, “If we were to understand this sense of truth, then the idea of photographs as a capsule for time would only be valid if it recorded a lot of times.”
His favorite camera, the pinhole camera, is a primitive tool that does not even have a lens nor a viewfinder and is really difficult to predict for its exposure time, with each image-taking up to two to three minutes to shoot, with the result still being prone to blurriness. But in accordance to Martin’s understanding, this sort of photography is the closest resemblance to reality. “Even though the photos are blurred, human’s imaginations are also blurred; so does that not make it closer to the thoughts of a human being?”
I then remembered a photo which he took with a pinhole camera. In the image, two people are sitting in the car’s front seat, with some clouds above them – a single image that fully represents the memories the two have had in their journey on the car. After he heard my description, he slowly replied, “What did that photo express? If we were to talk about it objectively, it just looks like two heads with a bunch of colors vanishing to a point at the top. If the viewer is not a human being, he/she would not have this kind of cognitive ability to understand the photograph. Any photograph is only given meaning to by a human being.”
The loss of human cognitive ability or the pre-notions we have of time and space could result photographs in being just a silent mirror, incompetent of reflecting the actual quality of anything.
在更早之前，他就用過一個巧克力鐵盒，改裝成一部6“ x 17″的相機；手作之事，Martin完全樂在其中。
When Martin first joined the pinhole camera workshop in university, he was very resistant to this photographic method and thought it did not help anything. It wasn’t until later when he understood more about the theories of photography did he really become interested in the pinhole camera. If we were to talk about his beginning of creating cameras, we need to trace back to his childhood.
“Every single boy who grew up in Hong Kong must have had a period of time when they were fascinated with model building. That was the time when I trained myself with hands-on skills. When I reached fourth and fifth grade of high school, I saw a lot of interesting cameras and I would buy them to take them apart at home. Then I learnt that the principle behind a camera was really simple, so I started making cameras myself. Since then it has never stopped, but I have reduced the complex materials into something simple, and slowly it became the paper camera now.”
During our morning shooting session, Martin demonstrated how to fold a piece of black paper into a pinhole camera. The whole process happened in a single go and took less than a minute. According to him, he usually carries a notebook to record each detail in production for different cameras.
“I like to transform things and make them simple. During my workshops, I always told my students that with creativity and thinking, a piece of paper can become a camera. Transforming things from A to B happens with creativity.” Martin continued and said, “With pinhole cameras you can take part in its production. Different from other digital cameras, which are already produced and made available in the market, we can only play the role of a user.”
Even earlier on, he has made a 6” x 17” camera with a chocolate tin at home. The idea of hand-making things is something that Martin finds pleasure in.
「我覺得一份好作品，無論是畫畫也好、音樂也好，它應該是能引發思考、問題，同時也給予一些答案。」Martin說到，他很喜歡John Baldessari這位藝術家，其在作品《Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts) 》 （1931）中，把三至四顆球拋出半空，拍下一卷三十六張底片，從中抽出一幀球體散佈位置最接近直線的畫面。「當四個球被拋上半空，剛拉成一條直線的可能性有多高？我們常說攝影是捕捉時刻，其實『那一刻』到底存在與否？還是說你只是個幸運的人，剛巧捕捉到那一刻？」
The beautiful thing about the pinhole camera is allowing photographers to take part in its actual production, but what that has truly attracted Martin is the “passiveness” that the pinhole camera can induce.
Like any other photography students in university, he was first educated about the operation of an SLR, learning how to shoot a nice image of a coffee cup for advertisement usage. He said, “I was captivated by the way photography can manipulate reality, and thought finally there is something to make things prettier in life. I also learnt a lot of manipulative skills with photography then. But as I started working with the pinhole camera, I realized that camera needs not to be so complex, and I was attracted by its ‘passiveness’. When you no longer press the shutter button continuously, you end up spending more time to think about things, like what is the purpose of taking a photo?”
He repeatedly emphasized that the pinhole camera is just another way of photography, and does not need to be romanticized. Indeed the pinhole camera in comparison to the mainstream digital camera requires much longer exposure times and the images were often blurry. But these shortcomings in the modern era have been awarded as a unique quality. “Taking a photograph with the pinhole camera and taking a photograph with the digital camera is different and that needs to be understood; one should not be satisfied by just its quality or uniqueness.”
“When it comes to a great piece of work, whether it is a drawing or a piece of music, I believe it should provoke people to think, to question and that it is able to give back some sort of answers at the same time.” Martin said. He really like the artist John Baldessari and his work “Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts)” (1931). The picture is the closet one chosen out of the roll of 36 negatives he has used when he tried to photograph three to four balls being thrown up in the air to form a straight line. “When the four balls were thrown up in the air, what was the probability of them actually forming a straight line? We always say that photography is the capturing of a moment, but does that “moment” even exist? Or should we just say you were lucky in being able to capture that moment? This idea has impacted me heavily.”
If we were to take our lifetime and dissect it into 36 negatives, then Martin would have used a third of his films on pinhole cameras. That is why when I asked him if he would regard the pinhole camera as his signature style, he had no objections.
“The pinhole camera and I have established years of relationship. When I do any sort of creations, I would first consider if a pinhole camera can be used. It’s a natural way of thinking when you are so used to a set of techniques. I still call myself a photographer now, not an artist, and that is because most artists will think about the content first before choosing which medium to use; but I go straight for the pinhole camera. This way of thinking is deeply rooted within a photographer.”
What we were unable to capture under our lens is this kind of subtle and shy smile that Martin had when he was talking to us. If you cannot imagine such an expression, look at that blue line on the front of his shoe; a sort of a shallow, light smile. This smile is the signature design by Jack Purcell, a classic model ever since the 30’s. It has remained until this day, with its classic outlook embossed in the minds of the public. I suppose that the notion of a signature style must be the detail which has experienced through time and still remains to be the clearest image in people’s minds.
During the interview he did exclaim how he wanted to try out more possibilities and did not want to be defined only by the pinhole camera. However, when we talked about the notion of a signature style, it was inevitable to realize that it was an impression exchanged through time and experiences, the part that has been the most focused on which delivers the most clarity.
A long exposed image on a photographic paper is often what that remains the longest, same with photography and same with a signature style.