Pinhole Landscape with Narrative in Three Parts

Pinhole Landscape with Narrative

Part I: Mailart

This is the first phase of the pinhole project, developing the project and taking the pictures.  I wanted to keep it varied and somewhat within the same setting as my writing, which wasn’t that difficult as the pinhole camera was light to carry, and pleasant to use, though it did require a tripod.  I could keep the camera with me almost everywhere I went.  The landscapes were photographed on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska where I live, in the Phillip Smith Mountains and other places around the Brooks Range, (one of the last good places with no circus at the gate), then Kodiak Island and Todd County Minnesota, places I know intimately enough to confuse them for my home when I am in one or the other of them.

I exposed hundreds of frame of these places looking for the interpretation that suited my needs.  I wanted to reflect my attachment to the landscape to the recipients of the packets I was planning to send while still allowing for their personal interpretation of some of these landscapes.

I made the images used in this project with a Zero Image pinhole camera.  It is a beautiful teakwood box made with brass fittings to allow for a roll of medium format film to be pulled across the exposure frame.  These exposures can be adjusted for 6×6, 6×7, 6×9, or 6×12 mm negative sizes, depending upon the needs of each particular landscape.  The pinhole itself is calibrated at f153 which allowed for exposure times from six to thirty seconds which I calibrated with a method I learned in grade school, (one-thousand one, one-thousand two…) while allowing for such things as sunlight or clouds, bright snow, water, or green and brown grass, and reciprocity failure.

As I did not have access to a darkroom, I had the film developed with contact sheets at Photo Wright labs in Anchorage.  The scanning of these negatives and printing was done by Ralph Sterling here in Soldotna.  We made forty sets of the images and attached them to the essay and instructions in the packet and took them to the post office in the spring of 2011, a vague sense of excitement and adventure permeating the day.

This is what I sent.

Part II: Collaboration
When I was an artist, I was like a person trying to make wind kites out of the beautiful blue jellyfish drifting through some of our harbors. As you may already perceive, this task is easy to imagine and all but undoable. It is as if, while I was deciding where to fasten the string and what to use for the tail, the thin, translucent membrane was drying away in the sharp salt wind. The cracks that appeared softened and crumbled at their edges and the gray dust quickly blew away. Even more disconcerting was the reoccurring fear that the pursuit of this art, any art, was not a valid task to begin with. I caught myself thinking, “does art even exist, and if it does, how is it that from another perspective it seems absurd and unnecessary?”

Still, on most days I plodded on.  I began to think that I could use words, write it.  In this way an idea might be more easily passed along.   Something can be imagined, written, and then reformed in the reader’s mind with less opportunity for misinterpretation.  I need only to write this and you, the reader, in your own time and place can make it happen again.  It is a kind of magic; a fox suddenly appears at the edge of a far grove of trees.  Everything is summer green and her orange back shines while a boy watches with his father from the deck of an empty wagon.  The child is drinking red Kool-Aid; it colors his lips and the bitten edge of a white bread bologna sandwich.  The fox crouches and pounces in the new mown hay.  How quickly she slips back into the dark woods when the man starts the old John Deere and it begins to pop.

In an instant we are back in this room, reading this strange letter, but we were there and went easily.  It is not so clear and direct with visual art which has evolved to to a point where often the viewer must be educated in a way so he or she can react to it in an intelligent manner.

I wonder about the necessity of these things and this is an experiment to consider one of the possible needs for art, to address the profaning of our natural world.  After a lifetime making images, I am reluctant to give up on them so I have decided to work on combining some with narrative and integrating the process into my community.

Curtis White, writing in the magazine “Orion” says, “Second perhaps only to toxic landscapes, the most thoroughly degraded aspect of our culture is its art.  This is so obvious that it hardly needs comment.  One simply has to say ‘Television’.” He goes on to say that it is art that has the potential to keep us from “accepting the death of the world we were born into.”  Art that matters is not simply the passive observation or contemplation of art in a museum but an active process. The beautiful paintings from the past are not our art, only its echo, or memory, light reaching us from a star long ago burned away.

In this mailing I am asking you to take part in a collaboration with me on these landscapes.  Submit a narrative to accompany one of them, not a description but something of an impression or fragments of your own idea about these things.  This can take a variety of directions.  First impressions are valid, small pieces of writing we have lying about that need a place to land might work; excerpts from existing print media can be important.  I have included a piece that may serve as an example “The Condensed History of Alaska” done some years ago, is a photograph of a stone positioned in a way that is reminiscent of an animal skull, perhaps in reference to a Georgia O’Keefe painting or possibly the Shroud of Turin.  This image is accompanied by a newspaper clipping that, along with the title of the piece, alludes to the artist’s ideas about the relationship between government and big business in his state.  Separately, each part is of little interest, together they offer the possibility of an entirely different idea.  (See “Shortened Histories” page)

This needn’t be very complicated.  Perhaps you have seen these places or these kinds of places yourself and always wanted express your feelings about them. Keep the images, save them or shred them if they began to appear around you as clutter, send a photograph of them disappearing into the shredder if necessary.  This project is the piece, the final result only its record.

This is what I know from working in the arts.  The most important thing to put into your work is what you see.  It is nothing to try to do what others have already done.  Alan Ginsburg said to “notice what you notice” in the world.  Tell that and it will be your truth, the truth.  Let the world know what only you know and what might be missed otherwise.  If you love your father and brother, love them in your work.  If the sight of the beautiful harlequin drake causes the curtain to tear and the other reality to become apparent, say it.  Do not wait for someone else and do not imagine someone has already done this.  Be yourself and have the courage to recognize that self. This is the only thing that needs to be written and you are the only one who can write it.

Some of the images are landscapes made in the Philip Smith Mountains, which make up a portion of the Brooks Range.  On the last evening I was in those mountains, I walked into the hills behind my camp.  There was a sharp snow and the dark gray shapes of caribou were moving below me, along Accomplishment Creek.  While I stood in the center of a long meadow, I saw a raven flying to me from the east.  Everything around seemed to lighten, the whiteness of the snow and clouds removed the difference between the white mountain tops and the sky.  The animist in me began to wonder, “Wouldn’t it be some kind of signal from the universe if that bird came here and talked to me?  Perhaps he could settle my thinking.”   The raven flew and flew, getting closer all the time, until I could see he was about to fly directly overhead.  After he was almost past, he turned and slowly circled me, getting very low. I could see the ends of his primaries spreading with each wing stroke and hear the sound the air made rushing through.  He then continued to fly west, making a smaller circle before landing on a large boulder which was not far from me. Instantly he began to speak.  He rambled on for several minutes, though I could not understand him clearly in the wind and he flew again when the fog and darkness began to cover him.

This is how he flew.  Do you think I should take the raven seriously?  Is it important to understand him?  Do you think there is anything more to it or does he only associate humans with carrion even though he could see such things from much higher up?

How the raven flew

These are the landscapes I sent.

This is the Long Prairie River just north of Browerville, Minnesota.  When I carried the tripod to this spot, in typical Midwestern fashion, a great blue heron came up from the edge of the river and flew north towards the left edge of the image and around the river’s turn.

This is the second bridge over the Long Prairie River if you go north of Browerville.  There are hills east of here but the river is on the flat land, in the fifteen seconds this exposure lasted, the water barely moved.

The Kenai River, just below Bing’s rapids.  It is the section of water separating Sterling, Alaska from Funny River.  Some people want a bridge and on this day there were three Barrow’s Goldeneyes on the opposite side against the black spruce.

This is a view from the south side of Kiliuda Bay on Kodiak Island looking back out towards the capes.  It was taken from seventeen hundred feet above sea level at noon on a mid- December day.

The Miss Michelle is a fifty five foot seiner belonging to Jon Botz, youngest son of Norm Botz.  We traveled all night while the two of them took turns at the helm, having left Boulder Bay in the late afternoon.  We got back into Kodiak City an hour or so before daylight.

This is on the other side of Atigun Pass, on the coastal plain.  Here, the Trans Alaska Pipeline runs between the road and the Sagavanirktok River, which is usually called the Sag for obvious reasons.

I Googled Lorca, Whitman, and Allen Ginsburg hoping to catch a glimpse of the Neon Fruit Supermarket.  Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?   Are you my angel?  It was exactly five in the afternoon.

This is what it looks like in the Phillip Smith Mountains, facing north towards the Beaufort Sea.  It is in mid August, after a daylong snowstorm which has almost melted away.

It is only a couple of miles to the divide from this mountain.  The light is not the same here.  When the moon is full in late summer and it is almost dark, somewhere between one and three in the morning, the horizon keeps just a little yellow and the hills shine like sheets of iron.

Most of the time I used 400TMY 120 film.  I exposed it in a Zero 6×12 Multi Format Pinhole Camera using the light from a hole in the front calibrated at f/158.  Exposure times ranged from 12 seconds to several minutes, depending upon light conditions and reciprocity corrections.

Dave Leonard’s Super Cub in front of the hanger in Bettles, Alaska.  This is just outside of Gates of the Arctic National Park.  Dave flies around up there and writes poetry in Iambic Pentameter about the people he has known.  It goes well with snowy mountain camps and passed around whiskey.

Everything else;

The first seeds of this idea came from the show and book from Frank Soos and Margo Klass titled Double Moons: Constructions and Conversations.  A description and review of this work can be found on the internet at Rattle, Poetry for the 21st Century.  (

Please respond to this invitation by September 20, 2011.  Pick any image or respond to the entire set.  Please respond if at all possible by my email, or you can send them by US Mail to Box 2218, Soldotna, Alaska 99669.  Anything up to two hundred words would be a good length as this will end up hanging someplace along with your contributions.  The captions that now appear below the images now will not be included in the final show.

Thanks to Ralph Sterling for scanning and printing the images.  Ralph has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about reproducing images on computers.  He also contributed by making a substantial financial sacrifice in the name of art.

Also, thanks to Sherry Simpson and David Stevenson at UAA.

Celia Anderson generously let me use the art department at KPC.

Curtis White is quoted from his essay “The Barbaric Heart” which appeared in Orion magazine May/June 2009 Vol. 28 No.3.

Paul Cezanne is quoted from Theories of Modern Art. Herschel B. Chipp.   University of California Press.Los Angeles,California. 1968. 20.

“Do not be an art critic, but paint, therein lies salvation.”  Paul Cezanne

Part III: Response: Exphrasis

This is what I know from working in the arts.  The most important thing to put into your work is what you see.  It is nothing to try to do what others have already done.  Alan Ginsburg said to “notice what you notice” in the world.  Tell that and it will be your truth, the truth.  Let the world know what only you know and what might be missed otherwise.  If you love your father and brother, love them in your work.  If the sight of the beautiful harlequin drake causes the curtain to tear and the other reality to become apparent, say it.  Do not wait for someone else and do not imagine someone has already done this.  Be yourself and have the courage to recognize that self. This is the only thing that needs to be written and you are the only one who can write it.

This collaboration is the result of forty mailart invitations sent to fellow writers and artists asking for reactions to one or more of these photographs.    This is only the record of our collaboration.  Its true life was when we were thinking and writing from our own separate places.  For this time we were a living community of artists and it was then this process was truly alive, when we were shining.

Michael Raudzis Dinkel

We Are Not Separate

We are not separate, you and I, from Raven or the landscape or the whiskey passed around the snowy camp outside the Gates of the Arctic National Park.  We are not aloof or beyond the full moon rising in late summer or the red fox that pounces in the new mown hay.  The seeds of our very souls and bodies were here in the beginning and will remain until the end, if there is such a thing as a beginning and an end (I smile, now, knowing there are only great looping circles).  Why must we stamp our names, Phillip Smith, on mountains that are our brothers?  What makes us name our boats for women we cannot possess?  Art and beauty and the words of Raven already live inside us.  Come, let us set a table in the wilderness, rest everything we possess upon it—including ourselves—ring the bell, and then sit down and eat.  There will be more than enough.  We are more than enough.  The world is starving, and will be complete when we surrender all that we have and all that we are as gift.

Judith Lethin


This image takes me to a magical place – a place with a history, certainly, and a

future of exploitation, but in the moment of my discovery, time stood still, and it

was my magic alone.

There is a small creek behind a youth hostel, rarely used in the spring, on the

California coast, where my grandparents lived in their homesteading way, long after

my great-great-grandfather had been one of the true historic pioneers of the area

during the gold rush. The creek is choked with cottonwoods in that drought-prone

land, and challenging to cross.  I managed to balance across a nearly-fallen tree

without getting my boots wet, but with great concentration and without looking up,

so that when I emerged over the edge of the muddy bank, I was completely unprepared

for what I found.  Behind me the hostel and its seedy hippie past, the road leading

back to the city; before me a massive expanse of field, constrained only by the

arch of cottonwoods in the bow of the river: lumpy tussocks and waist-high grasses,

dotted throughout with unwieldy clumps of daffodils – bright green sword-like

leaves sheltering nests of whites and yellows and variegations of all sorts.

It happens that I found this field on a sad solitary hike shortly after my infant

son died. I have tried to recreate the feel of the sunshine in the sky and the

grasses and the hearts of all those surprising daffodils, the sudden miraculous

relief at recognizing striking beauty in the chaos and haphazardness of the living

flowers. Here in Alaska, the voles have foiled my efforts to create a local field

of daffodils. Hundreds of bulbs have been planted and devoured before the next

spring. Yet the memory lives on, and is rekindled by a pinhole photograph.

Kristin Mitchell


The Second Bridge

When I was a kid in the fifties, I fished with my little brothers and our friends in Woods Creek, a slow moving stream that fed into the Niagara River a few miles above the falls. We fished at a place we called The Second Bridge for some reason. I lived in Niagara County for thirty years, and if there was another bridge on that little creek, I never found it.

Once I saw the toughest kid in our junior high school, a minor criminal of the first order, catch a small northern pike out of season at The Second Bridge. He hid the long, snake-like fish under the rear fender of his bike to evade the game warden. The kid’s name was Smitty. He had a scar across his face –from a knife fight in reform school, it was said. He didn’t have to tell us not to saying anything about that pike.

I haven’t thought about that in years.

Rich Chiapone


There was a bridge across the river in the town where my grandfather grew up, an old bridge over an older river with old trees with deep roots all around it.  He crossed it every day on his way to school, then on his way to work in fields he didn’t own.  Then one day he crossed the bridge and kept on walking.  People hollered out, they called his name, but he didn’t lift his head, he didn’t look back.   And I wonder if that bridge still stands and wonder if it would matter if it does.

Frank Soos


Second.  Second bridge. Second thought.  Second Daughter.

Second.  One one thousand.  Two one thousand.  Three.

Seconds are best.  Like turkey the day after Thanksgiving or Pisano’s pizza straight from the icebox.

I second that thought.  Pisano’s pizza.

Second bridge, implying a first and, perhaps, a third sense second is not called last.  Am I that to you?  The second link to shared burdens?

I have decided.  You are the second bridge of the second daughter.  Look how still the water is below you.  No troubled waters under your watch.  It’s your doing.

But where are we going?  What’s on the other side?  Hopefully not a third bridge.  I want you to be my last, be with me at my last second

Joan Wilson


We chug along the river looking for moose

The birds fly overhead

Telling us to ‘go away’

This is my place, their voices echo

The boat is cleansed of the salmon scales

And summer’s remnants of work.

The family has supplies for weeks

Of camping, hunting and rejuvenation

To complement the salmon in the smoke house or

Salt bucket, in the jar or freezer

On long winter days.

Dorothy Larson


Despite the soft drizzle, I stop the car to look. Just beyond the next bend, fish hold in the deep holes. More might be nosing into the riffles, or hanging behind the rocks below the water’s shiny surface.  Door thrown open to offer warm yellow light on this gray day, the car hums its impatient tune, we must be going, we must be going.  This river would take me down if only I would let it.  We must be going.

Frank Soos


Like the view through a window with rain sheeting down, you never really know if what you see is a reflection or something on the other side.  Or watching snow fall and looking at the world through gauze as the light begins to fail.  There are places where the boundaries are thin.  Places where you think you might part the curtain and step through.

Deb Liggett


With the swing of the boom, my whole world tilts back – to the sound of wave-slap, a near-windless day, seagulls scree, stench of seaweed – slides back to that day of sun and cloud, rain and cloud, blinded and shadowed, seasick, stalled, adrift. A day to sail Lake Huron, flat gray opening to ocean proportions.

“Watch the boom” he tells me. “If the wind shifts suddenly, I’ll call out, ‘boom about.’ Duck and move to the other side.” My first time on a sailboat, this narrowly balanced boat more treacherous than I imagined. No wind, but still I watch for some movement I am sure will surprise me.

Stretch of day becomes tight knot of night. We can’t return home, the anchor drops. Why did I come along — her ex-lover, my ex-lover, and me – we three, just friends now, balanced be?

The waves we wanted to move us along by day show themselves in the rolling dark, sounds I try not to hear fill the space where my heart and stomach used to be. The boom had shifted. I missed it.

In the morning, my foot hits the cracked grainy wood of the pier the color or cement, or sky, and I can’t be sure I’ve really found solid ground.

Lisa Scerbak


In the 1930’s, the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria probed the logic of the last purely oral cultures in central Asia.  In one of his scientific tests, he first told a man “All bears in the North are White” and then that “a friend sent me a letter saying he had seen a bear.”  He asked the man to name the bear’s color.  “How should I know?” the man responded.  “Ask your friend who saw the bear.”

Marlin Sigman


12x- 1 (Large)

In hasty synopsis, one might select a desolate expanse of the Arctic Coastal Plain to symbolize some concept of isolation and wild-ness. But I have been here. I know that curve in the road and have seen a rainbow reflected on the water after a summer storm. I’ve walked nearby looking for the stone tools of ancient Inland Eskimos – arrowheads, scrapers – and have found, instead, modern arrows with colored plastic parts and broken shafts lodged into the tussocks. The presence of an 800-mile-long pipeline carrying oil requires a ban on firearms, so, after these millennia, hunters now return with bows to take down the caribou. I find antler sheds in the grass, nibbled by voles. The herd knows this watering hole, crosses the road toward it, the wolves are still in tow. One wolf loiters along the road, sickly and brave by the Cheetos and bread thrown to her by truck drivers hauling Sysco frozen food and house-sized heavy equipment to Prudhoe Bay. They all know this place, as does the plow truck driver, the crew who painted the centerline and sunk the guardrail, the raven on the road kill. Am I tempted to leave my own souvenir amongst the Paleo-technology and pavement of my kind? I did lose my pencil, but pray forgiveness.Andrea Nelson

Andrea Nelson


The pale Lichen that grows on stones above tree line feels like brittle leaves that crackle between my fingers.  I’ve sat on it many times when perched on a rock to rest and wondered how long it took for the broken lichen to grow back again.

Eric Larson


Love Hate

When a life was reclaimed by a wild place,

I scolded her.

You don’t give fuck all about us do you?

 Your colorless busted rock, rasping water, eroded fucking mountains.

We write you, paint you, yearn for your companionship.

What do you give?



But now, my anger worn by time,

I remember the afternoon when she loved me too.

Alone for sunny miles,

her warm windy tongue

tasted my nakedness.

A voyeuristic hawk surfed above

as she cradled me

in her ancient calloused hands.

My back arched in ecstasy,

our cries harmonized.

In a flash of rainbow warmth

we were one.

Scott Burton


Some places are as they’ve been for a very long time. By stasis I mean the mountains fold and shrug. Snow moves in, out. The sky peels itself every day. The evidence: Talus—a field of rocky books, the pages unwriting themselves—dismantles. A young widow answers emails sent to her husband, a promising snow scientist killed a few months before in an avalanche. A black boy in Harlem stares mouth agape as a white woman flies down a tangled hill in the neighborhood park on skis after an unforecasted snowstorm.

The Snowball Earth theory says the planet was once a globe covered in ice and snow. What triggered the cooling is unknown, but snow fell and didn’t melt. Ice crept across the seas. As the Earth turned white, it reflected an increasing amount of the sun’s heat, cooling the planet even more. At the time of Snowball Earth, life on the planet was simple, mucky. There were no plants or animals, just blobbed conglomerates of cells. At some point, the Snowball abruptly melted. The frigid hold on the Earth was released spurring simple organisms to evolve rapidly into more complex forms.

This is the way it is with snow. A calendar of days. A memory. I’ll add forgetting.

Miranda Wiess


There are people who have no engaged conversation with the land whatsoever, no sense of its beauty or extremes or limits and therefore no reason to question their actions in a place that is merely backdrop.  (Ellen Meloy The Anthropology of Turquoise)

 A few years ago, I briefly thought I was falling in love with someone who was dying. There was this sense of panic, knowing that the recipient of my affection would be gone soon, and the impending, seemingly inevitable loss defined the nature of the affection. It was an urgent connection based on fear, shaped by its ending. I felt powerless.
I turned out to be wrong on both counts: there was no love, and this person is still alive and well.  But I remember the feeling distinctly. And I’ve had conversations lately about how loving a person and loving a place aren’t all that different. A close friend described how seeing the Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson, felt just like embracing a loved one she hadn’t seen in years.

I think about those places where I know the light and season, the warmth and cold. What does loss feel like?

Erica Watson


Mustn’t all our heroes from Enkidu to Shane in his buckskin suit follow the river down from the mountain?  Down to the plain where the rest of us live, here they come to do what they must, through righteous acts gain renown.  Life is fleeting, fame less so.  Still, there is no way back up the river.

Frank Soos


Isn’t this what we came here for?  To learn from nature?  Here’s a lesson, then.  For all our arduous striving, we’ve found no comfort or ease: Some places are hard places.  That’s all right, we paid dearly to get here.  Now we know.

Frank Soos


The gravel runway in the middle of nowhere

Big beach tires beneath the little Supercub

Slow moving aircraft

Gives way to thoughtful,

Contemplative minutes and hours

Before the plane lands safely at home base.

Dorothy Larson


Photographs by Michael Raudzis Dinkel; Collaboration by Eric Larson, Judith Lethin, Dorothy Larson, Scott Burtun, Deb Liggett, Kristin Mitchell, Rich Chiappone, Frank Soos, Miranda Weiss, Marilyn Sigman, and Erica Watson