The rain had started lightly when we arrived at Pedal Power Cafe to meet with Cardiff-based photographer and craftivist Michaela Davidova. We found her in a pensive mood, sipping coffee and gazing at the moody drizzle, and when she started speaking, opening up about how her fascinating journey into the world of pinhole photography started in 2013, her thoughts appeared to be travelling like venturesome, curious and quixotic clouds, letting out the subtle, intense showers of her inner speech.
Unbothered by the inclement Welsh weather, we stepped out in the rain and decided to go for a walk around Pontcanna Fields, chatting about her 2016 cycling adventure and her bike Foxie, the Artist Designer Maker degree course Michaela is enrolled on, her upcoming study trip to Holland under the Erasmus Exchange Programme and her ongoing craftivist project called Own Your Own Space.
Taking inspiration from the photographic processes and homemade cameras of the reclusive Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý, Michaela collects vintage tin boxes, cigarette packs, matchboxes and discarded cans and upcycles them into pinhole cameras, which she names Aytacrayta, a magic word expressing the meditative nature of pinhole photography. Michaela’s work is a strong reminder that every now and then we can forget about perfect lenses, accurate viewfinders and electronic shutters and shows us that there is an alternative, more magical and meditative way of taking photographs, whereby we can create poetic, spectral, yet almost tactile traces into the imperfect vagueness of reality.
Finding shelter from the rain beneath the leafless canopy, we conversed about Milan Kundera’s novels, the meaning of the Czech word Litost, her experimental attempts to cage the time within unwanted tin boxes and why imperfections play an important part in her work. Upon finishing our walk, Michaela bid us farewell and said goodbye to her bike Foxie while bracing herself for the rest of her journey.
Tell us about Michaela, the creative nomad behind Aytacrayta and Neboy.
Michaela is a curious person. She likes pinhole photography and cycling.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I found a cockchafer beetle in our garden when I was about 7 years old. I hid him behind the garbage containers and gave him some fresh dandelion leaves. Every day before going to school I would serve him the leaves and when I came back I found him eating them. We had a secret agreement and we followed this ritual for about two weeks. Then one day, my grandmother was mowing the grass and ran him over with a lawnmower.
Tell us about your journey into photography. How did it all start and who or what inspired you to follow this path?
I have never been taught any photography skills although I knew some basics about analogue photography. My journey started when I moved to London in 2013. I worked in a fast food shop as many Eastern Europeans start when they come to the United Kingdom. I knew I had to find something creative to fill my leisure time. And so one afternoon I started to learn about pinhole photography because I remembered I wanted to make a pinhole camera when I was younger but have never found time for it before. I still haven't learned everything, so I keep on going.
I quite like the story of Miroslav Tichý. He was making his own cameras and had a passion for photographing women on the streets. Often they did not know they were being photographed and therefore he was considered to be a local voyeur. He lived and died in a small town in Moravia.
Why pinhole photography? What is it that fascinates you about pinhole cameras?
Pinhole photography is a truly magical process. Just the fact that I am involved in the whole process of making my own camera device and taking the photographs afterwards is priceless. Also, I find the pinhole photography to be quite meditative. Due to long exposures, I often have to count the exposure time. I set up my camera and stare at the scene ahead. While I count the seconds I am trying to be present in the moment and remember the details I see or hear around me. They will be either forgotten or stored in my deep memory forever.
Do you remember the first photograph you took with a pinhole camera?
I actually do not remember which one was the first. I think it must have failed to develop. I used to squat in London for half a year, so it was probably one from this environment made on the photographic paper with the maple syrup tin box.
What is the most challenging step in the making of a pinhole camera?
Making a pinhole.
What is the most frequent question people ask you about your pinhole cameras?
How does it work?
There's a strong 'made by hand' feel to your work. Why does this approach appeal to you so much and what’s your take on analogue vs. digital?
I am studying at Cardiff Metropolitan University as an Artist Designer Maker and thus the process of making is very important in my practice. I like the journey of making something with my own hands, feeling the material, swearing when making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. I like to imagine how the first photographs were made and how this must have been one of the greatest and most absurd moments in the history of art. I definitely prefer the analogue photography. The reason why is maybe because you can feel the “thinginess” of the light-sensitive material while with digital photography this aspect is quite missing or hidden in the microchip which you can’t really touch. Although, I am not avoiding digital technologies because there is also a lot to learn and discover. I think I might leave it for somebody else or maybe I will make an interest in it in the future. Who knows.
What are some of your favourite shooting locations? What is it that draws you to them?
I don’t have favourite locations. I choose them according to the story or idea I want to follow.
What is your favourite time of the day?
Any time that has enough light to draw the image with. Having good light conditions can be quite challenging, especially in Wales when the weather is rainy and foggy. My outdoor photography definitely needs some organisational skills. I noticed that the best time in Cardiff is during the mornings and these days we have quite nice sunsets with pink tones in the sky.
Neboy offers the reader an in depth account of your 2016 summer cycling journey through Europe. What is the most valuable lesson that you have learned about yourself at the end of this journey?
I have learned that I have the courage to make things happen. I like to challenge myself. Although, lots of things would have never happened had there been no people to help me along the way or if there were nobody there to support me. I like what Christopher McCandless wrote about his adventure in Alaska before he died: “Happiness is only real when shared.” I am happy I can share my stories with others.
Tell us the story of your bike Foxie.
Foxie comes from the back garden of a house in Acton in West London. My friend gave it to me because nobody was riding it. That day I saw a fox for the first time in London. Somebody told me that foxes make creepy noises when making love and my bike was making them too.
How would you define home? What is home for you?
Home is where and with whom I feel safe. It has no borders.
You’ve led quite a nomadic life so far. If you could live and work anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
I can imagine myself bike touring around the world, teaching pinhole and analogue photography, picking various objects around me and making cameras out of them. Just because I like to cycle and there are plenty of beautiful places on the planet to be seen. That would be truly nomadic. On the other hand, I can imagine settling down in any peaceful place on the planet and build a tree house (with a good view) and grow vegetables.
In his beautiful novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera says that “Litost” is an untranslatable Czech word. What are your thoughts on this? And how do you relate with Litost?
I haven’t read this book but in his other book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera explains the Czech expression “Soucit” which can be easily mistaken for “Litost”. We can translate it as “compassion” which comes from the latin word compati meaning “to suffer with”. Whereas the Czech word “Soucit” comes from the expression of co-feeling. I think that when we express “Litost” on somebody and feel sorry for another person, we are also showing them our compassion. However, there is this little gap between these two words. To pity somebody suggests that we are sorry for the person but at the same time we are actually happy we are not in the same situation. On the other hand, if we co-feel with another person in terms of expressing our “Soucit”, we are showing them the highest empathy and therefore we are also expressing our love.
“Litost” can be a very poisonous feeling, especially when felt for one’s own self. I sometimes pity myself over some mistake or life situation just to realize that there is nothing to worry about. Maybe we need to learn how to forget and laugh about our own life mistakes to not feel overwhelmed by “Litost”.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever received?
My very good friend Tera once told me: “If you have a good friend, invite him or her for a good meal.” She is currently on her life journey sailing over the Atlantic Ocean. I am really looking forward to meeting her again and going for lunch together, to talk about dolphins and so on...
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on a project called Own Your Own Space which was launched with the start of the madeinroath arts festival 2017. To put it simply, I am collecting rubbish around the city and recording its digital image and GPS location, then I take it back home, clean it and convert it into a pinhole camera. Once a piece of rubbish is transformed into a pinhole camera, I return to the location I found it and take a pinhole picture from the same position where the rubbish was left behind. As photographers, we are often documenting certain moments but in this case I’m questioning who is actually making the evidence – is it me, the person who left the rubbish on the street or the object itself? At the same time, I load a new photographic paper into the pinhole camera and leave it in its initial place. Finally, I upload all the information to the online map so that anybody can follow the map and take the rubbish aka pinhole camera away.
Besides photography I really enjoy craftivism and this is just the perfect combination. I would like to encourage people to question the environment they live in and do something about it. The name of the project suggests the concept of ownership which goes hand in hand with the concept of responsibility. By accepting the space we live in as our home we are accepting at the same time the need to care for its image.
What are your dreams and ambitions for Aytacrayta?
I would like to make more and better pictures and improve the making of the pinhole cameras. I would like to learn historic photographic processes, to experiment, invent and spread the magic to others.
And now a question from Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire: What goes on in tunnels?
The light that travels in a straight line cannot pass through the tunnel. Therefore, the tunnel is a dark place. It connects two sources of light on each end and so it is, with no worry, only a transitional place. Depending on how far in the middle you are, you can or cannot see the tip of your shoes.
Can you recommend us:
A book: The Pencil of Nature by W. H. F. Talbot – the first commercially published book with
the photographic illustrations.
A song: Smile by David Gilmour.
A film: The Cremator (1968) by Juraj Herz.
A cycling route: Breezanddijk – a 30 km long dike connecting Holland and Friesland.
Thank you, Michaela for the inspiring insight into the world of pinhole photography.