La vida brinca—life jumps—and yet we strive to capture its passing moments by creating images. One of the simplest yet most evocative techniques for image-making is pinhole photography. Using a tiny aperture without a lens to shine light on a piece of film, pinhole cameras accumulate light until an image forms. Bill Wittliff calls the cameras he makes tragaluces, "light swallowers." By controlling only the size of the aperture, the distance to the film, and the length of the exposure, he makes images that forsake the documentary realism of traditional photography to disclose instead the presence of the mystical in the everyday world.
The tragaluz photographs in La Vida Brinca record iconic images of Hispanic life. Wittliff photographed fiestas, religious observances, street scenes, people's faces, and enduring rural landscapes. But with the soft focus and surprise elements that typify his tragaluz photographs, these images become dreamlike—scenes from a world where, as Stephen Harrigan says, "reassuring touchstones are likely to dissolve, and where the unseen is always startlingly on view." The accompanying essays by Harrigan and Elizabeth Ferrer discuss the history and techniques of pinhole photography, as well as Bill Wittliff's artistic choice to work in this medium. As a work of art, La Vida Brinca reveals that pinhole photography is an ideal vehicle for finding profound meaning in the commonplace, for seeing beyond what the eye can see.
A darkened chamber, a tiny hole on one side to let in the sun's light, an image of the world outside suddenly, magically appearing within. That is a camera. This simple instrument for duplicating what the eye sees has been known since the early fifteenth century, but solving the mystery of how to chemically fix and preserve that transient image—how to make a photograph—took another three hundred years.
There is something about the pictures in this book, however, that leaves you with the haunting impression that those three hundred years never took place. In La Vida Brinca, the images projected into Bill Wittliff's pinhole camera are still fleeting; the search for a way to capture light does not yet seem to have been entirely successful. All that can be recorded are ambiguous shapes and ghostly tracks of light, faces distorted into eerie power and prominence, patterns suggesting things we know we have seen but cannot quite remember. Everything is familiar but nothing is clear. The world seems to be dissolving in front of us to offer a view of another world that is far less fixed, that will not sit still to have its picture taken.
The yearning to break through to this hidden world is so strong in Wittliff's work that looking at these photographs sometimes feels like attending a séance. There is a conjuring magic at work here, for which the sophisticated camera technology of the twenty-first century would be useless. By profession, Bill Wittliff is an A-list screenwriter whose many indelible credits include The Black Stallion, Lonesome Dove, Legends of the Fall, and The Perfect Storm. It is impossible to operate in his particular tier of the movie-making arena without a real-world knowingness, a cagey understanding of career leverage and status anxiety and gross points-versus-net points. But as anyone who has ever gone water-witching with Wittliff on his Plum Creek Ranch can testify, he has a mystical and divining sense as well.
So it's no great surprise that he would eventually find his way, in his photography, to the pinhole camera. It is as simple a tool as the copper rods he holds in his hands to find water, with no f-stops or flash attachments or digital storage cards to distract from the primal wonder of an image trapped in a box.
Wittliff's characteristically numinous name for his pinhole cameras is tragaluces—light swallowers. He makes them himself. His first camera was a cut-down pie tin with a needle hole punched into its center that he duct-taped to a cardboard box with a piece of photo paper inside. Over the years he has gotten more sophisticated, scavenging in junk shops and thrift stores for old camera bodies so that he can use roll film instead of photo paper, and knocking out their lenses so he can use the shutters. But the principle remains the same: to create a device so stripped-down and unobtrusive that it barely exists. The pinhole itself is not a lens, it's a portal—patiently open, steadily absorbing. During the long exposures—sometimes up to thirty seconds or even more—images register inside the camera with the same sort of spooky neutrality with which dreams appear in a sleeping mind.
Most of the photographs in La Vida Brinca were taken in Mexico, though the Mexico depicted is less an actual country than a timeless folkloric backdrop. It is a place of ancient rituals and ambiguous icons, where the faces staring at you can be noble or sinister and the bodies in motion seem to be set on inexplicable errands. There is a provocative fit between the ancient technology of Wittliff's tragaluces cameras and the ageless panoply of his subject matter. It's a world inhabited by spirits, or at least by people who seem to be going about their business with the complicity of some unknowable animating force. Even the plain objects—shop signs, a whispery flag, an eerie self-referencing doorknob—are charged with the same otherworldly awareness.
For me, the most unforgettable images in the book are the ones that are most perplexing. Some of them, like Grave Robber, The Longing, and the magisterial Past Present Future appear to indicate people embarked upon or contemplating the most important journeys of their lives. Others, like The Great Mystery and The Many Steps, might—with their brooding air of invitation—have something to do with why those travelers have set out in the first place.
Sometimes, as with The Room Where Bullfighters Die, the titles of the pictures gives us an idea of where we are, but even in that case the contented blankness of the photograph triumphs over the information supplied. There are two pictures, for instance, titled House of the Workers that depict from different angles the same squat cement building sitting all by itself, seemingly empty and abandoned, in a forlorn field. It is, in one sense, a picture of nothing: a graceless, no-account building, an infinity of ugly dirt, a heavy sky bearing down from above. But of all the photographs in the book, this two-page spread is the one I find myself returning to the most. Some people might regard it as a work of social comment, an unsparing appraisal of injustice and grim horizons. But for me the powerful thing about the photograph is that it is a work of no comment at all. It is a record of a lifeless, profoundly uninteresting building just sitting there, as the day's fading light streams through the tiny aperture of Wittliff's camera.
I don't know why or how or when this placid portrait of nothing special became a work of art. I just know it did. Like the other photographs in this book, it reveals more than we know, and maybe more than we want to know. As technically primitive as Bill Wittliff's tragaluz photographs are, they are as penetrating in their way as an electron microscope, seeing what human eyes can't, revealing ever-deeper layers of reality. La Vida Brinca means, literally, "life jumps." Life shifts and skitters; it won't stay in place. And the life that Bill Wittliff wants us to consider in these pictures is one where many worlds are possible at once, where reassuring touchstones are likely to dissolve, and where the unseen is always startlingly on view.