v1.6.1 / Chris McCaw: A Blister in the Sun

Chris McCaw is of that rare professional lineage that boasts of figures like Daguerre. His photographs are absolutely unique and absolutely irreplaceable. Like Sally Mann, who nurtures the accidents of wet plate collodion, McCaw perfects the arcs and streaks of damage done by light.

In this post (the first of two), McCaw traces the progression of his work, from his series SUNBURN to his newer “instant” photographs (see post 2 of 2, forthcoming). For more, be sure to check out McCaw’s monograph, published by Candela Books, 2012.

Chris McCaw: On the Art of Overexposure

This is one of a handful of cityscapes from this body of work. I took it in downtown San Francisco around the spring equinox. The nearly 45 degree angle of the sun’s trajectory is a kind of time marker.

I prefer working in natural landscapes. They speak to the unending solar cycle with little to no trace of human activity.

Honestly, working on the street with large cameras in one place for hours at a time can be an unpleasant experience. It makes you a perfect target for just about all things urban. All you end up doing is playing defense against police, unstable homeless, people who must give you their opinions, curious tourists, meter maids, trucks double parking in front of your camera after a couple hours of exposure (!!!), etc…

Made with the low angle sun of the winter solstice in the Santa Cruz mountains, south of San Francisco. This pattern was created by opening the shutter for 30 seconds in timed intervals. The intervals slowly expanded from sunrise to midday, then started contracting towards sunset. It takes a bit of math, an understanding of how the paper responds to solarization, and some intuition to strike the right balance of composition.

As this is a 20”x24” camera format, this wide angle lens vignettes on the corners, helping hold an overall sphere-like shape.

One of my favorite things about this series is how it is so inherently linked to the natural cycles. In order to make a piece like this, I had to take a camera all the way to the equator, around the time of the spring equinox. Only then could I get the sun rising perpendicular to the horizon. I traveled to the Galapagos Islands in particular to witness the effect over water.

Many of the pieces in this series are made with glass from aerial reconnaissance optics, very heavy but very fast. These lenses tend to burn vigorously and create lots of smoke. This is a rare and fairly violent example that shows the powerful energy of light. As the approximately 2-hour exposure is made, smoke and heat rising off the point of ignition cooked off some of the gelatin in the sky area on the paper negative. As in all cameras, the image projects upside down and backwards, so the rising heat looks more like it is dripping down when viewed right side up.

This is a triptych over the Colorado River. It looks into Arizona from the shores of California, near the Mexican border. The steep vertical trajectory of the sun time stamps this image as one taken in the middle of summer. In fact, it was so hot that day (117F), that I actually swam IN the river to cool off during the exposure. I got out only to switch the frames.

The 30”x40” camera built around a garden wagon (right) and the “Sad Robot,” built around a converted wheelchair and a 125 pound lens from a U2 reconnaissance plane, complete with car jack to raise and lower the massive optic during a sunrise exposure in the Mojave Desert, 2010.

“These lenses tend to burn vigorously and create lots of smoke.”

*All images and video used by permission of Chris McCaw.