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Allie Haeusslein — Sun Strokes

Sun Strokes

Chris McCaw: Sunburn (Richmond, VA: Candela Books), 2012
96 pages | 65 reproductions | 10.5 x 11.5 inches | 978-0984573929

Chris McCaw: Sunburn (Richmond, VA: Candela Books), 2012. Photograph: Chris McCaw: Sunburn (Richmond, VA: Candela Books), 2012. Photograph: © Chris McCaw. Courtesy Candela Books.
Chris McCaw: Sunburn (Richmond, VA: Candela Books), 2012. Photograph: Chris McCaw: Sunburn (Richmond, VA: Candela Books), 2012. Photograph: © Chris McCaw. Courtesy Candela Books.
Chris McCaw: Sunburn (Richmond, VA: Candela Books), 2012. Photograph: Chris McCaw: Sunburn (Richmond, VA: Candela Books), 2012. Photograph: © Chris McCaw. Courtesy Candela Books.

Photography has long been praised for its ability to suspend a moment in time.  In describing the pioneering oeuvre of Henri-Cartier Bresson – father of “the decisive moment” – curator Peter Galassi explains, “[o]nce exposures became short enough, the capacity to stop action was recognized as a key attribute of [photography]. But it matters just as much that the capacity is also an inescapable obligation: If moving things are to appear in the picture, time must be stopped.”[1] The work of San Francisco-based photographer Chris McCaw challenges this stationary conception of the medium by articulating movement and the passage of time in his pictures, the sun his primary subject matter.

Chris McCaw, Sunburned GSP#235 (Black Rock), 2008. Unique gelatin silver paper negative. 8 x 10 inches. © Chris McCaw.

Serendipity sparked McCaw’s distinctive approach in the Sunburn series. While on a camping trip in 2003, he destroyed an all-night exposure of the stars after failing to close the shutter before sunrise. McCaw did discover, however, that the intense, focused light from the sunrise resulted in not only a solarized image of the landscape – a reversal of tonality due to an extreme amount of over-exposure, producing a positive image on the film negative – but also a burnt hole. Intrigued by the outcome of this blunder, he extensively experimented with this process, ultimately arriving at an elegantly simple technique and set of tools that belie his ethereal pictures.

McCaw’s practice now relies on calculated finesse, marked by moments of chance. He works with hand-built view cameras of various sizes, up to 30 by 40 inches, equipped with powerful military optics that flood the paper with light. Rather than using film, he loads his camera with a single sheet of silver gelatin paper, achieving powerful immediacy; the resulting photographs are the direct result of the sun’s interaction with the paper and thus cannot be reproduced. The concentrated strength of the sunlight entering the camera can be so strong that the paper ignites, sending smoke from the bellows and leaving behind singed traces on the photographs. Extended exposures, some as long as 24 hours, deliberately overexpose the photographic paper, resulting in a solarized picture of the scene – a process that vividly renders the landscape in saturated tonalities, giving a subtle impression of three-dimensonality.  As today’s papers will not solarize given their modern chemical compositions, McCaw seeks out vintage photographic paper. His studio shelves sag under the weight of countless boxes and envelopes stuffed with paper, most of it manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s; he estimates that only 10% of this stock may produce potentially successful pictures.

McCaw’s work lies in the tradition of distinguished predecessors, including fellow San Franciscan Carleton Watkins, revered landscape photographer of the late nineteenth century. 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. “Working with one or more assistants and three cameras, often in exceptionally difficult locales where water had to be hauled over long distances, with the help of twelve recalcitrant mules…and literally a ton of equipment, [Watkins] necessarily became a logistical and technical expert,” writes Maria Hambourg in a catalogue devoted to the photographer’s work.[2] McCaw’s logistical challenges are nearly as great, although he has dispensed with Watkins’ mules – instead favoring an oversize blue van that serves as transportation, storage, housing, and a lightproof changing room. On a recent trip to the Galapagos, McCaw maneuvered two cameras, three lenses, tripods, film holders and paper on his back through suffocating heat and humidity, traveling by foot across miles of irregular trail. It is clear, nevertheless, that both men relish the opportunity to engage so intimately with their surroundings, ever challenged by the unique physical realities defined by their  practices. Watkins’ process required the challenge of developing giant, glass plates on-site, often under unfavorable circumstances, and then transporting these fragile objects over uneven terrain. McCaw must deal with not only the challenges imposed by his cumbersome tools in the landscape, but also by his reliance on the climate, location and even the rotation of the planet in order to produce his photographs.

Carleton Watkins, Solar Eclipse from Mount Lucia, 1889. Albumen print. 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Neither Watkins nor McCaw developed such arduous processes for the sake of awe; rather, they innovated the tools necessary to produce photographs of an unprecedented nature. In order to create his stunning picture of 1889, Solar Eclipse from Mount Santa Lucia, Watkins perched patiently at the top of Mount Santa Lucia, aware that he would only be able to make a single exposure of this event. His timing is unerring, capturing the instant of complete eclipse in a haunting, almost unearthly depiction of this phenomenon. Nearly 125 years later, McCaw produced his own pictures of a solar eclipse. Sunburned GSP#576 (Annular eclipse, Nevada) maps the symbiosis of sun and moon before, during and after the eclipse, fixing this relationship at various moments within a single frame. If, as 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 capture the sun, one of the subjects most difficult to articulate in a photograph, let alone its motion.

Chris McCaw, Sunburned GSP#500 (Pacific Ocean), 2011. Unique gelatin silver paper negative, 8 x 10 inches. © Chris McCaw.

The concentrated strength of the sun entering the camera can, and often does, literally burn the surface of the paper, resulting in beautiful marks that embody both fragility and brute force, creation and destruction. For the past eight years, he has refined this process, obtaining burn marks ranging from precise crescents to seemingly violent gashes. Works like Sunburned GSP#500 (Pacific Ocean) – taken from the edge of cliffs bordering the Pacific Ocean, a site to which he frequently returns – stun in their simplicity. The sunrise is delineated by a singular, almost needle-like mark hovering above the hazy gray reflection of light on the ocean, the perimeter of the cliffs outlined subtly in black along the picture’s border. Lying feathered along two of the bold lacerations comprising the all-day curvature of the sun in Sunburned GSP#467 (Full day/Puget Sound, WA) are beautiful wisps of orange peeking through a dark background, a consequence of the gelatin in the paper quite literally being cooked and melting off the surface.

The assertive gesturalism characterizing McCaw’s pictures – and the transgression underlying this destruction of the photographic picture plane – extends a formal and conceptual tradition that emerged in the 1940s.  In 1946, Italian artist Lucio Fontana wrote the Manifesto Blanco urging a significant change in the trajectory of modern art that moved away from traditional pictorial and sculptural forms towards an aesthetic emphasizing the interaction of space, time and movement – those elements he considered most emblematic of society’s changing relationship to nature and technology. He responded with Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept), a series of paintings that challenged established notions of the medium – and the picture plane more generally – by slashing and poking holes in the canvas. Fontana explains, “I make a hole in a canvas in order to leave behind the old pictorial formulae, the painting and the traditional view of art and I escape, symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of the flat surface.”[4] McCaw’s pierced photographs bear a striking resemblance to these radical modern paintings. Despite the sixty years separating these seemingly dissimilar practices, this shared formal element stands as a fundamental challenge to both mediums. These works operate more sculpturally, literally bursting beyond the confines of the flat surface. Defying the traditional two-dimensionality of these art forms, both Fontana’s paintings and McCaw’s photographs interact with their surroundings, casting shadows that accentuate an unexpected three-dimensional space.

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept: Expectations, 1960. Slashed canvas and gauze, 39 1/2 x 31 4/8 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

While the sun may be considered a collaborator in this process, McCaw’s sophisticated understanding of materials, environment and timing is evident through the remarkable control evinced in these photographs. Sunburned GSP#485 (North Slope Alaska/ 24 hours) resulted from a trip to the Arctic Circle during the summer, where sunlight persists a full 24 hours. Here, he seamlessly stitches together a sequence of 14 pictures that chart the sun’s undulating path across the horizon – with only a subtle nod to the earthbound landscape appearing as a faint impression of the north slope tundra. Such precise alignment requires diligent monitoring of the sun’s movement, the ability to work quickly under pressure and, perhaps most of all, patience and perseverance. It took McCaw two trips to Alaska to produce this picture. On his first visit in 2010,  unexpected rain and snow disrupted exposures of clear skies that were 12, even 17 hours, in the making, rendering them unusable. This technical exercise becomes almost performative, McCaw’s careful movements choreographed in response to those environmental indicators to which he is uniquely attuned. Based on such experiences and an intimate knowledge of the sun’s patterns, he selects locations throughout the year in anticipation of the sun’s specific course across the sky; islands in the Puget Sound during wintertime provide ideal sites from which to capture the low-laying path of the sun. With just the information conveyed by the sun’s angle, its trace on the paper and minimal indicators of environment, one could theoretically determine when and where a particular picture is made. Despite the complexity of this approach, these photographs retain a beautiful sense of effortlessness and quietude – an elegant amalgam of abstraction and landscape.

In 2009, photographer and professor Richard Benson suggested, “[t]raditional chemical photography is an extraordinarily flexible field, which, even as it disappears, has hardly been touched.”[5] As analog photography languishes on the heels of perpetual innovations in the field of digital technology, McCaw’s use of traditional photographic materials to unparalleled effect suggests that perhaps we have prematurely discounted the potential of these tools. Through the combination of photography’s most basic elements – light, a lens and time – he creates pictures that challenge established notions of how this medium operates and what it can achieve.



[1] Peter Galassi, “Old Worlds, Modern Times,” in Henri Cartier-Bresson: Modern Century, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010, p. 40.

[2] Maria Morris Hambourg, “Carleton Watkins: An Introduction,” in Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999, p. 11.

[3] Ibid, p. 12.

[4] Lucio Fontana in conversation with Tommaso Trini, July 19, 1968, in Exhibition Catalogue, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1988, p. 34).

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