BLOOMINGTON — Dr. Frankenstein got his start experimenting with small animals before he advanced to compositing a whole man from grave-robbed cadavers.
Similarly, Bloomington artist Kevin Strandberg began his experiments by tinkering with small cameras for reasons of pure function before moving on to assembling them whole from the dead.
As in, discarded or junked camera parts.
And, lately, even noncamera parts.
Frankenstein’s unwieldy experiments eventually led to the making of a creature bearing his own name (Frankenstein’s monster).
Strandberg’s experiments have led to something far less socially disruptive and much more aesthetically pleasing: a new Mclean County Arts Center exhibit, also bearing the name, sort of, of the man who made the monster.
“The Franken-Camera Project,” now on view in the MCAC’s Armstrong Gallery, features Strandberg’s photographic obsessions taken to their limit via 14 of his modified and/or completely redesigned and rebuilt film cameras and the resulting photographs they have produced.
The show’s subtitle captures its spirit in a snapshot: “From the sublime to the ridiculous.”
At one end of the spectrum is the aesthetic, sculptural quality of the man-made creations, which may have begun their lives as modified means to more functional ends, but have advanced to things of formal beauty.
Sculptures, in fact.
That sense is fortified by each Franken-camera’s personal testimonial: a striking framed silver gelatin print taken through its unique eye.
At the spectrum’s opposite end is Strandberg’s sense of humor about his self-described obsessive “tinkering” pursuits, which range from spending the past 24 years restoring on an old west-side Bloomington building to rebuilding an Italian motorcycle.
The sense of humor is embodied in the show’s most outré creation, a hulking behemoth dubbed Jack O’Camera, stitched together from a ’60s TV antenna, a vintage scissors display case, a VW bug horn, a dozen 70mm bullet casings and more (see accompanying story).
“Either way, these Franken-cameras make me laugh when I look at them,” he says. “I certainly have the last laugh when I print negatives that these sculptures produce.”
Part of the success there comes from each of his creations being fitted with a high-resolution large format lens that produces the razor-sharp images on view.
They range from sculptural images shot locally around the Twin Cities and beyond, including one of the show’s set-pieces — an unusual vertically oriented panoramic image taken in Barcelona and printed as a photogravure etching by Jonathan Higgins at Bloomington’s Mannekin Press (Higgins is one of the few modern printers with the skill to produce such prints with the arcane process).
Strandberg, a sculptor and photographer who also is director of Illinois Wesleyan University’s School of Art, traces everything on view in the show to his youth, when his function-over-form obsessions kicked in with a Nikon F camera that irritated him.
The year was 1969, when Stranberg was still in junior high school.
“I didn’t like the way it handled so I changed some stuff on it,” he recalls, including the back that detached when it was time to reload. “I didn’t know what do with it, so I built this little thing that leashed the back to it. These early modifications were simple ergonomic tweaks.”
From such humble beginnings as a “little hobby thing,” Strandberg’s Franken-camerawork emerged over the next 40-some years.
“Later, I was never happy with the cameras I would get cheap,” he says. “I never liked the quality of the lenses of a lot of them.”
That particular irk is well-represented in the show, which invariably features a camera modified with a modern lens for sharper photographic results.
In recent years, sculptural ends have come into play in his IWU studio, where his photo students coined the “Franken-camera” term.
“I don’t know if that is supposed to tell me that these sculptures are scary or that these cameras are put together in a rough, brutal fashion, or, possibly, that I have begun to appear like a mad scientist when they catch me working in the sculpture shop.”
These days, he says, you’re less likely to find him taking existing cameras and refitting them with discarded parts than conjuring them completely from the bottom up, with parts coming hither and yon, from motorcycles to VW bugs.
Be it via Ebay or Third Sunday Market, Strandberg is forever on the hunt, foraging and amassing.
He produces a photo of his parts-strewn studio, and it truly does resemble something slightly mad and Frankenstein-ian.
But there’s method to the madness.
“These really are sculptural pieces, and I’ve begun thinking more about the aesthetics of a camera, which is something I guess I hadn’t thought about until I started making them from scratch.”
Though the show has originated with the McLean County Arts Center, Strandberg is hopeful that, like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, it will venture forth into the world.
A grant from IWU will fund the creation of a catalogue for “The Franken-Camera Project,” which, in turn, will be used to send it on its museum and gallery-hopping way over the next few years.
“Things always seem to start on a small scale,” he says of the obsessive pursuits that continue to grow and evolve.
“But then they graduate to drastic levels. In tearing camera bodies apart and grafting foreign components, I have begun with the sublime and have ended with the ridiculous.”
Not to mention the often beautiful.
At a glance
What: “The Franken-Camera Project: from the sublime to the ridiculous”
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tue., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fri., noon to 4 p.m. Sat., through March 1
Where: McLean County Arts Center, 601 N. East St., Bloomington
Information: 309-829-0011 or www.mcac.org
Related events: Opening reception, 5 to 7 p.m. Friday; Art Talk with Kevin Strandberg, 6 p.m. Feb. 11.