Sunburned Photographs: An Experiment in Alternative Analog

There has been a very real struggle in recent years between the two dominant methods of photography: digital or film? Pixels or grain? Lightroom or the darkroom? In all the hubub, it’s very easy to lose sight of what photography is at its most basic—the capturing of light to create an image, and the many, many ways to approach that task. Even film purists often forget about tintypes and glass plates, though solargraphs have made something of a resurgence. In this video, which is presented by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, California, photographer Chris McCaw shows us how he has devised a process of burning his images into photo paper, using the camera’s lens to focus the sun’s rays into a beam which can sear the scene over a very extended exposure:

Using a massive 30 x 40 inch large format bellows camera, McCaw loads a sheet of photosensitive paper into the film holder and points the lens at the landscape, facing towards the arc of the sun. Over the course of a full day, the lens concentrates the sun’s light into a harsh beam which sears the scene in much the same way that a devilish child would use a magnifying glass to sear an ant. The effect is called solarization; it is a well-known phenomenon in which intense overexposure causes the tones in an image to reverse – the dark areas becoming light, and vice versa. The path of the sun itself gets so hot that the paper literally goes up in smoke, leaving a hole burned right through the paper.

analog photography

What results from this process is a photograph unlike any other – a product of pure experimentation and invention. As the world moves away from analog photography, it may seem as if the possibilities are exhausted and there is nothing left to learn, but the opposite is true. With only 150 years of history to the photographic medium, there are endless discoveries yet to be made in regards to what can be done with the recording of light, and they will be made by innovators who are able to think outside the camera.

analog photography

Next time you are looking for a challenge, you don’t simply have to replicate what others have done before you. Try asking yourself:

  • What materials are sensitive to light (film, photo paper, Polaroids, liquid emulsion, silver, copper)?
  • How does light move? How does a camera work?
  • What new combinations can I make between materials, equipment, and light?

analog photography

“I think the main thing is to just realize that there’s still so much stuff that’s out there to do, that, you know, that we haven’t even thought of. And I think a lot of photographers are.. they’re getting excited again about going back to the darkroom and just rethinking, ‘What is a photograph?'”

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One response to “Sunburned Photographs: An Experiment in Alternative Analog”

  1. Oh man! I love this! I could not agree more with the idea of experimentation. “What new combinations can I make between materials, equipment, and light?” I also think the whole battle over digital v film v whatever is just bogus. Who cares? Get out there and create by capturing light!

    Thanks for the excellent post!

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