Chris McCaw’s Sunburn project
In 2003 an all night exposure of the stars made during a camping trip was lost due to the effects of whiskey. Unable to wake up to close the shutter before sunrise, all the information of the night’s exposure was destroyed. The intense light of the rising sun was so focused and powerful that it physically changed the film, creating a new way for me to think about photography.
In this process the sun burns its path onto the light sensitive negative. After hours of exposure, the sky, as a result of the extremely intense light exposure, reacts in an effect called solarization- a natural reversal of tonality through over exposure. The resulting negative literally has a burnt hole in it with the landscape in complete reversal. The subject of the photograph (the sun) has transcended the idea that a photograph is simple a representation of reality, and has physically come through the lens and put it’s hand onto the final piece. This is a process of creation and destruction, all happening within the the camera.
In the beginning, after that first experience in 2003, I began experimenting with burning film and printing the resulting burnt negative in the platinum palladium process. The results were very interesting yet very confusing. The film negative has solarized into a positive and I then printed that into a final print with a negative image, and a generation loss of the burn.
After struggling for a few years and thinking about this new way of working with time and exposure, I wanted to see what else could be done with different media. Through much trial and error, in late 2006 I chose to use vintage fiber based gelatin silver black & white photographic paper. By putting the paper in my film holder, in place of film, I create a one of a kind paper negative. Being the first generation, the evidence of the scorching is right there front and center and the solarized image becomes a positive. The gelatin in the paper gets cooked and leaves wonderful colors of orange and red, with ash that ranges from a glossy black to an iridescent metallic surface. Becoming more of a collaboration between artist and subject, in the resulting image the sun has become an active participant in part of the printmaking.
The historic references to photography’s beginnings are also apparent in this work. Talbot’s use of paper negatives come to mind. Also the worlds earliest surviving photograph made by Niepce was an 8 hour long exposure, describing the movement of the sun-the buildings being lit by 2 directions showing morning and afternoon light in the same image. Then there is the use of vintage papers which some of the worlds most memorable work was printed on. There is this vague nostalgia for me as I destroy these classic papers that represent some of the highest points in traditional black and white image making. I know for instance, I have burned the same vintage of paper that Misrach used to use in his split toned photographs of the desert at night until Agfa changed the formulation. Also some Dupont papers that were favorites of many photographers back in the 60’s and 70’s.
With every year I have further advanced this method. Learning about military aerial reconnaissance camera optics and pretty much the entire history of gelatin silver enlarging papers since the late 1960’s, I now have bettered the means to execute the ideas I have regarding time and process. Currently I am working out ideas ranging from large 30”x40” images, mosaics of paper, solar locomotion(ala Muybridge), and all the way to visual representation of morse code-seriously writing with light. This project has got my mind working overtime and has rejuvenated my faith in analog photography. My favorite part is watching smoke come out of the camera during the exposure and the faint smell of roasted marshmallows as the gelatin cooks!