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When photographer Bruce McKaig opens the closet of his Capitol Hill studio, old tripods don’t spill out. There’s no stash of top-dollar Nikons, either. Not even an old Polaroid. But there is a $13 metal garbage can with a hole in it. Since February 2001, the can-cum-camera has been McKaig’s tool for documenting the neighborhoods of D.C.

“After 15 or 20 years of making photographs, more and more it was the basics of photography that had my attention,” explains the 43-year-old artist. “I wanted to simplify the process as much as possible, but still come up with something that was my creative proposal. I’ve reduced tools and techniques to crude minimums, and that’s just the terrain I’m more comfortable with.”

McKaig, who was born in North Carolina and moved among military bases as a child, says that the teacher of the one and only art class he ever completed gave him a blueprint for his photographic exploration 27 years ago. “The idea was to get away from any thought that photography is a defined practice,” McKaig says, “and instead make it clear that there’s an ongoing quest for what a photograph can be.”

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So when McKaig lugs the 30-gallon pinhole camera down the stairs of his studio once each day, he heads out in search of a quality of light rather than any specific subject matter. “Sometimes,” he says, “I’ve left with the can loaded to expose and headed directly to a place because I had seen it the day before and thought, That’s my next scene, only to get back and, if the light is different, it’s not even there.”

Nonetheless, McKaig has used his trash-can camera to produce nearly 100 prints, wide-angle cityscapes crisscrossed by the ghosted images of passers-by caught during the shots’ long exposure times—anywhere from five minutes to two hours. “Each step of the creative process has remained transparent and is still here,” the photographer says, pointing out black marks at the edge of one print, where tape once held the paper negative inside the cylindrical camera body.

McKaig says that his favorite photographs are “those that don’t have a distinctive architectural element.” In fact, much of his work is far less representational than the cityscapes. In his studio, photographs from the pinhole series hang alongside silver-gelatin prints made by covering photographic paper with rocks and leaves and then exposing it to ambient light and splashing it with chemicals. The results are swirling masses of earthy browns and pinks that look more like gestural paintings than typical photographs. For McKaig, both these direct exposures and his pinhole work fall under the rubric of what he calls “fundamental photography with minimum tools.”

“As the rules and technical sophistication drop, it’s just a different sort of pressure to cook up your own rules,” he says. “That’s where creativity is a concrete resource. It’s what fills the gaps.” —Josh Levin

McKaig’s work is on view to Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 328-0955.