Arts·The World Of

Before making way for condos, this Vancouver building became a giant camera

Artist Joel Nicholas Peterson turned a Vancouver building into a camera obscura for his show Blueprints for Observation. The exhibition opens August 28 at the city's Woodward's Building. Peterson explains how he did it, and why he's fascinated by the city's changing landscape.

How do you turn a building into a camera? It helps if it's days away from demolition

Artist Joel Nicholas Peterson inside his camera obscura, a former storage facility at Beach Avenue and Howe Street in Vancouver. (Nigel Berringer)

Who is he?

Fourteen large-scale images of Vancouver's urban landscape hang in the Woodward's Building atrium. It's a 360-degree view, all part of a show by local artist Joel Nicholas Peterson called "Blueprints for Observation." You can see the Granville Bridge, a glimpse of downtown and the mountains. To the south, there's a sliver of False Creek and Granville Island, and looking west, you can gaze towards English Bay. Signs of construction appear throughout.

Peterson took the photos. His camera? He made it himself — by drilling holes in the sides of a hundred-year-old building.

Blueprints for Observation, on display at Vancouver's Woodward's Building. (Joel Nicholas Peterson)

"I just think of myself as a general artist," Peterson says. "Any sort of medium that really interests me, I'll dive into making something – even if it's not really a medium." (His next project, he hints, involves bioluminescent mushrooms.) Photography, however, is a special passion, and Peterson says he's fascinated by the science behind it, and the history – "just the thousands of years of people mucking around with photo chemicals and printmaking." His first exposure to the camera obscura, an ancient optic device and the precursor to modern photography, was an epiphany.

"As soon as I learned about it, I knew that I had to build one someday," he says. "When I built my first one, it still blew my mind completely."

Then last year, he had an idea that took things to a new level. Three floors above a condo showroom, to be precise.

Joel Nicholas Peterson. (Blueprints for Observation, 2015) (Nigel Benninger)

When Peterson heard there were plans to erect a 52-story tower at the north end of the Granville Street Bridge, he had an idea. The location wasn't far from where he lived in his art-school days, and a storage facility was still on the site of the new condo development. He gave the manager there his pitch. He wanted to turn the old building into an enormous camera obscura. His photos would capture the rapidly changing landscape of the neighbourhood, from a location experiencing its own radical change.

"I usually operate on the 'it's usually easier to ask for forgiveness' method, but drilling holes through cement walls didn't really fall into that category," Peterson jokes.

How do you take photos…with a building?

Last summer, not long before the storage facility was demolished, Peterson and his friends Nigel Berringer and Alex Rosin headed in. Their mission: turn the place into a "disposable camera." They tore down walls, and ensured the rooms/camera chambers were completely black. (Berringer, when not working on the wrecking crew, filmed the entire process; a short documentary about the project, called The Big Picture, is in production and will be released on Sept. 14.)

Joel Nicholas Peterson. (Blueprint for Observation, 2015) (Nigel Berringer)

Then came the apertures — a.k.a. holes in an eight-inch wall of re-enforced concrete. He needed four, one for each view. (When light shines through, it burns an image onto four-foot-wide sheets of film. Each exposure takes roughly half an hour.)

Peterson turned to the Internet for demolition advice, but the Shawshank Redemption would've been enough. He and his friends spent hours on each aperture, drilling holes — then painstakingly finishing the chore with pick axes and chisels. "My hands are actually still sore," he says.

Break out the chainsaws!

Tired of chipping at the wall, Peterson began researching better methods. "I found out about a concrete-cutting chainsaw that was water-cooled… and I got really excited because it seemed really badass," Peterson laughs. "But it really backfired on me. It could've shut down the whole project."

All the water they needed to cool down the chainsaw? It drained through a pipe that led two floors down, straight into a condo showroom. "The water was just pouring down there, soaking the front desk," Peterson remembers. "Luckily I run a painting contracting company so I went in there at one o'clock one night and sort of fixed it. That could've been a lot messier." (Look forward to seeing the screwball details in that aforementioned documentary.)

Artist Joel Nicholas Peterson stands with a 13-foot-tall negative from his Blueprints for Observation series. Peterson says the Guinness Book of World Records created a new category for it, "largest film negative." (Alex Rosin)

Call the Guinness Book of World Records!

A building-sized camera requires building-sized film. And in capturing his 360-degree cityscape, Peterson may have inadvertently made history. One of the negatives on display at Woodward's measures 4 feet by 13 feet. He contacted the Guinness Book of World records last December, and, says Peterson, they developed a new category just for him: Largest Film Negative. "This was a complete by-product, just an exciting, unintentional thing that happened."

A moment in time

"Just studying photography you realize all photography is historical documentation," Peterson says, and the simple idea of preserving a moment in time was the motivation for the "Blueprints for Observation" project.  Cities are always changing. The view from his camera obscura captures a moment in the landscape's history, as much as it suggests a new one coming soon. (In some shots, cranes appear on the horizon. The photos themselves were taken from a building that's already gone.)

Joel Nicholas Peterson. (Blueprints for Observation, 2015) (Nigel Berringer)

"I'm just really interested in cities and architecture and buildings, how they relate to each other, how they relate to us as humans," Peterson says. "Living in Vancouver, you can't not be interested in these things. It's just apparent everywhere you go that things are going up so quickly."

Joel Nicholas Peterson: Blueprints for Observation. Fri, Aug. 28-Wed, Sept.30 at the Woodward's Building atrium, 333 Abbott, Vancouver, B.C.. 8-10pm. Free. 


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