Chris McCaw

Foam Magazine
Issue #49, Back to the Future, 2018

"Chris McCaw" in Foam Magazine, Back to the Future, no. 49, 2018, pp. 101-112, p. 125. [Photograph on left]: © Jessica Eaton. [Photograph on right]: © Chris McCaw. Courtesy Foam Magazine.
"Chris McCaw" in Foam Magazine, Back to the Future, no. 49, 2018, pp. 101-112, p. 125. Photographs: © Chris McCaw. Courtesy Foam Magazine.
"Chris McCaw" in Foam Magazine, Back to the Future, no. 49, 2018, pp. 101-112, p. 125. [Photograph on left]: © Chris McCaw. [Photograph on right]: © Liz Nielsen. Courtesy Foam Magazine.

In 1826, the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce created the earliest known photograph made in a camera—a view from the upstairs window of his house—an exciting development from his “extensive research on the manner of fixing the image of objects by the action of light…”[1] He termed the work a heliograph, or “sun drawing.” With his Sunburn works, Chris McCaw references the birth of photography by combining the medium’s most essential elements—light, lens and time—to create ethereal photographs that image the sun’s movement across the sky.

Through years of experimentation and refinement, McCaw has developed an elegantly simple process and set of tools. He explains, “the principle is the same as using a magnifying glass to burn a hole in a leaf.”[2] His hand-built view cameras of sizes up to 30 by 40 inches are equipped with powerful military optics that flood the camera with light. McCaw creates “direct positive” images in-camera—with no intervening negatives—by directly shooting onto expired gelatin silver papers. Extended exposures, ranging from several hours to over three days in length, deliberately overexpose the paper, producing solarized, otherworldly pictures of the landscape. The intensity of the focused sunlight can burn the paper’s surface, leaving behind beautiful traces embodying blends of fragility and strength, combined with creation and destruction; results range from precise, minimalist crescents to violent, sculptural gashes reminiscent of Lucio Fontana’s radical Concetto Spaziale paintings.

Chris McCaw, Sunburned GSP#492 (North Slope Alaska/ 24 hours), 2011. Thirteen 8 x 20 inch unique gelatin silver paper negatives. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © Chris McCaw.

A sophisticated understanding of material, timing, and environment is evident in the remarkable control evinced in these photographs. This is epitomized by a monumental work like Sunburned GSP#492 (2013) made in the Arctic Circle. Here, McCaw seamlessly stiches together 13 pictures of the sun’s undulating path over 24 hours. Such precise alignment requires diligent monitoring of the sun’s movement and quick work under pressure. Even under more straightforward circumstances, McCaw’s practice verges on performative, his careful movements choreographed in response to his materials, equipment and weather. Despite the complexity of this approach, these photographs retain a sense of effortlessness and quietude—an amalgam of abstraction and landscape.

McCaw’s work lies in the tradition of distinguished predecessors such as revered landscape photographer, Carleton Watkins. In 1861, Watkins hired a cabinetmaker to create a camera capable of accepting 18 by 22-inch plate negatives in order to document the vast vistas of the Yosemite Valley. Watkins prevailed despite the many obstacles inherent to picturing the landscape at the time, from the technical (i.e. his camera) to the practical (i.e. trekking through backwoods carrying roughly two thousand pounds of glass plates, chemicals, and equipment). Despite the 150-year separation, McCaw’s challenges have been remarkably similar. He has traveled extensively to remote locations from the Galpagos to Alaska, chasing eclipses, equinoxes, and other extraordinary solar events with abundant equipment and material in tow. If, as curator Maria Hambourg writes, “Watkins made most of his great pictures when he enjoyed the challenge of devising a shape for the previously undepicted,”[3] the same can be said for McCaw who, against formidable odds, has learned to depict one of the most difficult subjects to articulate and capture in motion in a photograph—the sun.

Chris McCaw, Poly-optic #22, 2013. 20 x 24 inch unique gelatin silver paper negative. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. © Chris McCaw.

In 2009, photographer Richard Benson suggested, “[t]raditional chemical photography is an extraordinarily flexible field, which, even as it disappears, has hardly been touched.”[4] Through the use of traditional photographic materials and a working process deeply rooted in analogue techology, McCaw’s practice suggests the continued vitality of these tools. He continues to push the boundaries of his process, making multiple exposures from different places at different times on a single sheet of paper and experimenting with new equipment such as circuit cameras and a lens-board he mounted with sixty-three lenses. In many cases, McCaw’s approach and mentality aligns him more strongly with his nineteenth-century predecessors—equal parts adventurers, scientists, and artists—than with his contemporaries. He extends this lineage into the twenty-first century, relishing the endless challenges wrought by the unique physical realities of his practice and his limitless curiousity about the medium’s possibilties.


[1] Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, “Notice sur l’Heliographie,” 1827. Translation from Accessed 22 November 2017.

[2] Chris McCaw quoted by Becky Harlan, “When the Sun Burns a Hole in Your Photo,” National Geographic, 18 June 2015.  Accessed 22 November 2017.

[3] Maria Morris Hambourg, “Carleton Watkins: An Introduction,” in Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999, p. 12.

[4] Richard Benson quoted by Darius Himes, “The Printed Picture, by Richard Benson (MoMA, 2010),” Aperture 194, Spring 2009.