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Chris McCaw on his Sunburn series

Sunburned GSP#351(Nevada), 2009 -- Chris McCaw
 I have been fascinated by Chris McCaw's work ever since I first saw it. After learning more about his work, my fascination has grown.

At first glance McCaw's photographs are subtle black and white images with Zen compositions... beautiful abstractions with suggestions of landscape. At second glance you may notice that some of the gestural streaks have dimension and warmer tones. Though one can appreciate McCaw's work just based on its beauty, it is only natural for the mind to want to understand how these images are created.

Very simply put, McCaw builds his own large format cameras, places vintage silver gelatin paper into the film holder (instead of film) and leaves his lens open for an extended period of time. Because the lens is open for so long, the sun burns into the photographic paper, at times creating holes, and inverts the image from a negative to a positive, a process called solarization.

You might wonder how someone would come up with such a process. I did. It all began on a camping trip when McCaw was making long exposures of the night sky and forgot to close his camera lenses before going to sleep. I asked McCaw to share a little more about his process and other adventures... 

Anne Kelly: What happened after you woke to discover that the sun had burned a hole into your negative?

Chris McCaw: I assumed it was just another lost night exposure. It wasn't until later that day when I was changing film in my film holders that I realized something very strange had happened. When I got to the sheet of film exposed to the sun, I could feel a tear in it, a hole. I was completely confused by this I almost threw the sheet away. While inspecting the film holder I figured out what had happened, but honestly I didn't think too much about it.

Once I got back home, I developed my film from that trip. When I got to the burned sheet, I again almost threw it away assuming there would be no information left on something so overexposed -- and burned to boot. But I did process the sheet of film and was amazed to see that it had solarized. I knew there was potential there, but I didn't burn more film until about a year later.

It wasn't until 3 years later, in 2006 that I moved to photographic paper in place of film. And it wasn't until late 2006 that I realized I needed to use vintage gelatin silver papers to get solarization to occur, creating that perfect combination of the positive solarized image with the first generation solar burn.

AK: You build your own cameras.  How did you get started?

CM: I started building cameras purely out of poverty. In 1995 I had just graduated from art school and had no job, no money and a vintage 7"x17" Korona Banquet camera that was difficult to use. The vintage camera was worth something so I kept the film holders and sold the camera. With the money I paid my rent for 3 months and built a sturdier and lighter 7"x17" camera for about $150. Using just wood working skills from junior high school woodshop and my skateboard ramp building, I was able to build something functional -- not pretty, but functional.

The hardest part was making the bellows (it took a few weeks to make a light tight one). I am proud of my improvisations, like using hacksaw blades on the camera back as the spring mechanisms to hold the ground glass and film holders. That camera made all the work from my series Travelogue and The Family Farm. It is still working fine, though a few years back I paid someone to make a better bellows.

Building my own camera was a really liberating process as a photographer. Sometimes you get into that rut of having big dreams of owning high-end camera gear. The reality is that if you use your imagination and a practical sense of what you want to accomplish, you can do most anything. I feel confident that I can pretty much make any camera I need (I'm currently up to 30x40" mounted on a garden wagon). I also just made one on the base of a wheelchair to hold a 125 lb aerial camera lens!

The wheelchair camera (my friends call it 'the sad robot') was just built last month. So far it is only an 8x10" camera, but it has a 600mm f/3.5 lens that projects an image about 16x20". I was told the lens came off a U2 spy plane -- it is a beast. I use a car jack to raise and lower the lens. I even needed to get a handicap ramp to get it into the van!

AK: Tell us about one of your images:

CM: How about #386(Pacific Ocean), the diptych you have at the gallery. The simplicity of the ocean's straight horizon paired with the burned path of the sun is one of my favorite areas to work with. It seems like it would get redundant quickly but when you look at each work, they are all very different. With this piece, I wanted to do an extended burn and break it up between 2 negatives. Playing with the abstraction of this simplified landscape, I purposefully placed just a taste of a cliff on the far right. This little bit of landscape information grounds the piece as a landscape, but looking over the rest of the image it can become complete abstraction.

Sunburned GSP#386(Pacific Ocean), 2009 -- Chris McCaw
This tension sums up some of the magic of the Sunburn series. The images can at times be completely abstract with no reference to photography. But in reality, these images are photographically based in landscape and made by a collaboration between myself, a simple machine, and the natural world. 

AK: What's next for you?

CM: I'm planning to go back to the Arctic Circle. 24 hours of daylight is a photographer's paradise. Aside from the mosquitoes and my completely irrational fear of bears, the place is amazing - you really feel you are sitting on top of the world. I plan to head back next year and spend enough time to get 24 images of clear skies -- apparently my recent 5 weeks wasn't a long enough trip. What was interesting was crossing the boarder with my radioactive lenses -- I guess Homeland Security hadn't accounted for these optics!

For more information on McCaw's work, contact photo-eye Gallery.