Dreamlike Worlds: Bahar Habibi in the Studio

September 9, 2016 by


A bullet-shaped, darkroom safelight is Studio Workspace resident Bahar Habibi‘s companion for the day; it looks like a small robot or, to her, a spaceship, but it’s actually a homemade pinhole camera. When she uses it to photograph WSW, it’s loosely taped to a tripod and, though she adjusts its direction and angle, she cannot be sure of what it sees. While shooting a portrait, the camera was tilted lower than expected, leaving her with a picture of two legs seated on the office stairs.

The first time Bahar made a pinhole camera, she was sixteen and had moved from Iran to Canada, where she used the darkroom to communicate whenever the foreign language failed her. Her current project has a much different purpose: it is an exercise in trading control for artistic gain. By giving up the comfort of a viewfinder and pixels, her photographs of life at WSW are unexpected and impossible to replicate with another device.

The pinhole camera is an extension of the camera obscura, a structure with a small hole on one side, allowing light to project an external object’s inverted image onto the opposite surface. Similarly, pinhole photography uses a small aperture on any light-proof container to imprint an image on photographic paper, later revealed in the darkroom.

“This is alchemy,” Bahar laughs, rinsing a print. In the age of instant, digital media, it’s easy to disregard the scientific breakthrough that was traditional photography: washes of silver salts and alcohol over metal plates and paper captured the world’s likeness. Bahar’s project is a return to its most basic elements. She’s interested in the distorted reality that her humble camera, fashioned from a darkroom safelight and electrical tape, records with the help of chemistry and light.

“It looks [at the world] differently than the eyes look, differently than any other camera,” she explains. “Every time you make a pinhole you don’t know what the result is going to be.”

Each gelatin silver photograph is trimmed to fit the camera’s circular shape and a glowing ring appears in the center. They unintentionally look as though the world is reflected in large, black eyes. Bahar sees them as little dreamlike worlds of their own; they also remind her of a voyeur peering through a peephole. Due to the anomalies the camera creates, the viewer may not recognize Bahar’s subjects dissolved in shadow or muddled by a sharp glare.

These obscured pictures—still lifes, landscapes, and portraits—confront Bahar’s newfound distrust of photography, the medium she’s considered an extension of herself since childhood.

“I’m going through an identity crisis. Photography was my thing, then I became suspicious of the photographic image,” Bahar says. “There was a moment that I thought, ‘It’s all a story that we just tell ourselves.’” Looking back on earlier photographs she took in Iran, she questioned how the story was perceived differently by her and her audience. Doubting the meaning of the narratives she created through snapshots, she’s used the nomadic lifestyle of artist residencies to explore other media, public art, and working with other artists.

“I don’t define myself as a photographic artist anymore,” she says. “I have interest in more immediate experiences other than just looking.” At first, Bahar began creating films, or “elongated photographs”, that briefly record changes of light, sound, and movement in one scene. Moving away from documenting moments toward provoking them, she’s staged performances in a narrow, public walkway in Vancouver. Similar to the pinhole camera at WSW, each new project heavily relies on chance to shape the result.

Still, Bahar is not abandoning photography. In a week, she begins Ryerson University’s Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management Program to learn more about the history and purpose of image-making. She hopes to understand photography as an abstract, traceable life that emerged as people looked for means to depict their place in the world.

Taking a self-portrait in front of WSW, Bahar marks this time and place in her life with a dark, lopsided photo. To make it, she needs someone to stay with the camera as she stands, completely still, a safe distance away, ensuring her entire body is in the shot. Despite these precautions, there is no guarantee the picture will turn out as planned. For a perfect photograph, she could use her phone or any of the cameras lying around the studio—instead, Bahar wants to see what this moment creates.

Bahar Habibi is an artist based in Vancouver and Toronto and originally from Tehran, Iran. She has a BFA in Fine Art from Emily Carr University, studied at the International Summer School of Photography, Latvia, and is part of the Cargo Collective. Find more images of her project on Flickr