ed holmes is hardly your average shutter bug. Long before he became a Bay Area fixture with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and founder of the annual St. Stupid’s Day Parade, the Berkeley-based artist took pictures. When he first began “collecting photons” in the 1950s, he tried emulating his photographer heroes (Robert Frank, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson) but soon discovered his best pictures were often the result of mistakes (double-exposures, ‘bad’ compositions, ‘wrong’ metering, etc.). This Dadaist incorporation of accident and merry pranksterism is laid out in his mission statement: “The Lazlo Bean-dip School of Jalopy Photography doesn’t push the boundaries of photography, it just ignores them. Use inferior equipment, make as many mistakes as possible, and if anything comes out, SURPRISE! ” High-jinx on the high seas include “sneaking into Shanghai harbor” to shoot pictures for the NSA during a stint in the Navy. holmes’ infectious Dadaist humor and sense of the absurd surface in monikers like ‘Lazlo Bean-dip’ and ‘Bishop Joey of the First Church of the Last Laugh’. FCOTLL ecumenically welcomes everyone from its banana peel pulpit: “The one thing that unites the species across all differences of color, creed, nationality, zip code and beverage preference is stupidity. If you are human you share that unavoidable DNA link from dim past to shining present.”
At some point, a flash bulb must have gone off in holmes’ head about what to do with the boatload of cameras he had accumulated over the past half century: Everything from plastic toy/junk cameras to Super 8 movie cameras and contemporary digital models. Once he saw the light (prodded by his wife Janet Koike who founded Rhythmix Cultural Works in Alameda, to do something about the cam clutter),
a six month collaboration began between holmes and engineer Marc Ribaud, who created a wooden armature (along with sound design by friends Doug Wellman and Joe Paulino), that resulted in the creation of cameraMAN
. Painstakingly constructed from 253 cameras dating from the yesteryear and today: The Roaring ‘20s right up to the present. (a pair of film strip projectors beame glowing eyes, a row of Instamatics the spine, Super 8’s served as legs because they were heavier) the result is a faintly sci-fi-looking slo-tech robot or gargantuan child’s toy. At 8 feet high and weighing between 180-200 lbs, cameraMAN
asserts himself with theatrical panache in any space. Though cameraMAN comes off as the strong silent type, he
has a heart (a red box camera) and minimalist voice (shutter sounds).
probably doesn’t have a negative bone in his body, yet he does have a serious side, whether intended or not. We’ve come a long way from the innocent irony
of Paul Simon channeling Shakespeare in Kodachrome
as the Viet Nam War raged on “They give us those nice bright colors…Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day .“ All that has completely flipped around in a social media world saturated with selfies. Nowadays, everybody and their uncle is armed with a smartphone, shooting surreptitious pictures of pretty much everything in sight. If you’re not careful, your bad hair day might wind up on Facebook, Instagram or worse. Celebrities being chased down by paparazzi is nothing new (Picture the Beatles or Lady Gaga trapped inside their four-wheeled fishbowls, their adoring fans’ faces pressed up against the windows. Or Princess Diana trying to escape her camera hounds in what probably started out as a routine drive-by shooting but ended in her fateful crash in Pont d’Alma Tunnel.) In the rear-view too is the semi-anonymous photojournalist who could remain in the background safely behind the camera and go unrecognized in the grocery store. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Nick Ut, who took the iconic black-and-white image of the little girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, himself was attacked in Washington D.C. earlier this year the day after receiving the Medal of Arts award at The White House and wrote about his assault on Instagram.
If the Internet and its related technologies feed our cultural narcissism every few seconds, they can also be deployed for great good. Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who recorded George Floyd murder on her phone, is literally responsible for the shot seen around the world that sparked protests and difficult conversations in every corner of the globe.
Like blacklisted former San Franisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (the social justice warrior who led the charge protesting racism and police brutality in the sports world) cameraMAN
takes a knee as he gets in position to take his next shot from an Astro-turf pedestal (Ironically, it’s cameraMAN
, holding a huge imaginary camera/framing the scene, that conjures a low-tech SWAT member out on some top secret surveillance mission clad in silvery battle gear but with large colorful clown feet. It’s his subjects who might raise theirs arms and cry, “Don’t shoot”.)
Every good action hero
has a sidekick. Enter cameraDOG
(aka Casey or ‘Caysea’ as scrawled on his vintage-looking sea blue dog bowl. ) Somehow it’s fitting that cameraDOG
rather than cameraMAN
is the recipient of the Sculpture award in The Sheridan Prize for Art. The whole raison d’etre behind these awards is to champion the underdog and provide a platform and some long overdue exposure for historically marginalized artists in the Bay Area art world and beyond (specifically Women, People of Color, LGBTQ+ Immigrants, Incarcerated.) Here, our Mutt (or how about ‘R.Mutt’, a nod to Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s famous alter ego) becomes a shaggy doppelganger for underrepresented artists.
As the artist focused his energies brainstorming cameraMAN
, another issue arose. What to do with the dog pile of camera/projector cases on the floor. holmes noticed a potential red tongue and brown dog ears. Alameda artist, seamstress and costumer Marie Chenut was then brought on board to help flesh things out
and bring cameraDOG
to life. Casey’s not the world’s greatest watch dog. cameraMAN ‘s
best friend lays on his belly, prefers belly rubs and seems super chill. cameraDOG
is a pussy cat compared to Picasso’s ferocious felines painted on the eve of World War II. His most pronounced features are a pair of floppy brown ears, a bulging lens pocket that morphs into a convincing snout and multi-colored fur fashioned from black and various shades of brown leather camera straps.
by comparison at approximately 2 x 3-feet, cameraDOG
might seem like a mere pawnote alongside the towering cameraMAN
. But cameraDOG
is actually the more successful artwork. Almost by necessity, cameraMAN
is a lumbering neo-geo time capsule (It’s exceedingly difficult to mold or shape mostly hard, unyielding squares or rectangles. Ditto for round metal projector reels But imagine the history once housed in those hundreds of cameras!). The camera cases’ softer leather, on the other hand, is much more pliable (the straps limp, leathery noodles). As a result, cameraDOG
is more dog-like than cameraMAN
is human. Casey even has a discernible personality. In this regard, he brings to mind Pacifica sculptor Jerry Ross Barrish’s menagerie of found plastic (Barrish is a master of psychology and creating almost cinematically nuanced gestures). With cameraDOG,
holmes and Chenut also possess this deft touch, where everything is just right. You really feel like you’re looking at a dog and not a pile of old camera cases and accoutrement.
It’s difficult imagining (or writing about) large, massive three-dimensional objects reduced to miniscule two-dimensional reproduction. One really needs to experience holmes’ dynamic duo in person. Bay Area art buffs are in luck. cameraMAN
are on view through the end of the year in the Rythmix Cultural Works lobby. After that, both are looking for a new permanent home, preferably indoors (cameraMAN
’s wood skeleton wouldn’t weather the elements too well) to help support RCW. But make no bones: They’re inseparable. It’s a package deal. cameraDOG
isn’t your average mutt.