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  • June 18, 2015

When the Sun Burns a Hole in Your Photo

Author
Becky Harlan

Eclipses and equinoxes, solstices and midnight suns—these are the celestial subjects of photographer Chris McCaw. But his photos reveal more than just beautiful representations of what any knowledgeable sky-watcher could see.

The photographs McCaw makes bear the actual burn marks of the sun as it passes through the sky.

Picture of the a hole burned in a paper negative where the sun was in the sky, over a body of water
Sunburned GSP #816 (San Francisco Bay), 2014
8×10 unique gelatin silver paper negative 

How does he do it? “The principal is the same as using a magnifying glass to burn a hole in a leaf,” he says. “Only I use a really big lens and the focused light from the sun to burn its path into old gelatin silver black-and-white photo paper where traditional film would go.”

Picture of the streak of the sun across the sky, and the hole it burned in the paper, which looks drippy
Sunburned GSP #836 (Mojave), 2015
20×24 unique gelatin silver paper negative

Since the image is being burned into the actual paper as the sun moves, the exposure lasts as long as whatever event McCaw is capturing. His longest exposure to date? “About 32 hours in the Arctic Circle? Maybe 33!”

Picture of five differnt images of the sun moving across the sky in an inverted black and white image
Sunburned GSP #800 (sunset/sunrise, Galbraith Lake, Arctic Circle, Alaska), 2014
Five 20×24 unique gelatin silver paper negatives

Paying such close attention to the sky, he says, “gives you an incredible perspective in the natural rhythms that work in the background of our lives every day. I think nothing now of spending a day, even a week, in the same place, just watching shadows move, watching how the land is experienced.”

Picture of the path of the sun, arcing down towards the horizon, burned into a paper
Sunburned GSP #801 (Arctic Circle, Alaska), 2014
12×20 unique gelatin silver paper negative

He’s come a long way since he accidentally discovered this technique by sleeping through his alarm and overexposing an overnight exposure, burning a hole in the film. A monograph of his work, Sunburn, was published in 2012, but McCaw is nowhere near through experimenting. “It’s an exciting place to be, on the outer boundaries of what light-sensitive photographic materials can do. This project has opened the floodgates of what and how something can be photographed.”

Picture of a photo that shows the arc of the sun moving across the sky
Sunburned GSP #786 (near Dietrich River, Arctic Circle, Alaska), 2014
Twenty 4×10 unique gelatin silver paper negative
Picture of six different images of the sun as it moves across the sky
Sunburned GSP #795 (clear skies descend into snow, North Slope, Alaska), 2014
Six 4×5 unique gelatin silver paper negatives

I talked with McCaw just as he was headed back to the Arctic (his fourth trip) for several weeks to capture more of the midnight sun, a journey that involves a five-day boat trip from Washington State and being pretty much offline upon arrival. “Flashlights are about the only thing I don’t need to pack. I have a small Sprinter van that holds all my gear and camping supplies. It also doubles as a mobile darkroom that I can make light-tight to change paper, since it never gets dark outside. It can be cold, even in summer,” he says. He’s developed a coping mechanism: “I drink lots of tea.”

Picture of Strait of Juan de fuca
Sunburned GSP #829 (every 15 minutes, Strait of Juan de Fuca), 2015
8×20 unique gelatin silver paper negative

The 24-hour light of the Arctic summer attracts McCaw like a moth to a flame. “In the summer the sun never sets. It allowed me to make pieces showing the rise and fall and rise of the sun in a way you don’t see anywhere else,” he says. “Currently I’m working to describe this natural rhythm of the relationship of day to night in multiple days-long exposures, weather permitting.”

Picture of four negatives that trace the arc of the sun across the sky, which is burned into the paper
Sunburned GSP #821 (Santa Cruz Mountains), 2014
Four 8×10 unique gelatin silver paper negatives
Picture of a photo that is inveted in color, showing the path of the sun scross the sky
Sunburned GSP #782 (Arctic Circle, Alaska), 2014
20×24 unique gelatin silver paper negative

This kind of analogue, experimental photography leaves a lot of room for trial and error. “If it was all figured out, it wouldn’t be as interesting to me,” says McCaw. “There are still many times when I’m pleasantly surprised and equally times where I am staring into a developer tray full of failure, and I just have to remember how nice it was to sit outside and enjoy the day.”


McCaw’s work is on view as part of a larger exhibition, The Memory of Time, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. until September 13, 2015. See more of Chris McCaw’s work on his website.

There are 8 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Kathleen Walsh-Moleski
    July 2, 2015

    Loved these – just returned from YukonDempster Hwy – to photograph midnight sun 6/23 just below NWT from midnight to one a.m. – thanks!

  2. C Kershaw
    July 2, 2015

    What did Michaels brain not take in? I found this absolutely fascinating. Just shows how fortunate we are that God sat our earth in exactly the correct position from the sun. If we believe in God or not we are pretty privileged to be in the correct place. Thank you so much Mr Mccaw for sharing this wonderment to us all, brilliant!

  3. Fornik Tsai
    June 30, 2015

    Unique beauty.

  4. Denise Poyner
    June 29, 2015

    I found this fascinating. Thanks so much.

  5. Meredith Chase
    June 28, 2015

    Amazing Earth and the Sun!

  6. James W Troy
    June 28, 2015

    Thank you for pursuing this effort and sharing your successes, Mr. McCaw. The photos are captivating. I am eager to see more.

    Every photograph is an experiment. The act of performing the experiment generates excitement. A successful result produces visual pleasure.

  7. Michael
    June 28, 2015

    what?… I spent about 3 minutes looking/reading about these pictures? I want those 3 minutes back…

  8. Tyler Logue
    June 21, 2015

    I can’t contain myself, this is just too cool. SCIENCEEE

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