The photograph is so ubiquitous in our lives that we rarely think about it much, if at all, in our daily lives. It is in everything from print advertising to every form of online media. An even more ever present fixture in our lives is the sun itself. Given these conditions, it is somewhat startling to walk into the current show, “Ride Into the Sun,” of Chris McCaw’s photographs at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, where we are treated to an innovative new way of photographing and reminded of the importance of one of the most important elements of our lives.
Chris McCaw’s photographs embody innovation in the tradition of the gelatin silver photographic medium, something one might consider fully investigated in the 170 plus years since it was first created. From a technical viewpoint McCaw’s work involves the exposure of vintage photographic papers that are at least 20 – 30 years old in a large format view camera. He then aims the camera lens toward the sun, letting it expose the image directly on the paper and also focusing the sun’s rays to burn the paper itself, leaving a physical trace of the sun’s movement across the sky. The exposures themselves sometimes last 24 hours, though not always. Through the quirks of the development process and special modifications he introduced, McCaw is able to develop the stunning group of works in this show.
McCaw stumbled on the idea for this series by pure accident. In 2003, he was photographing star tracks and woke up in the morning to discover the sun had melted the negative in the camera he was using. He took the film back and developed it anyways, thinking there still might be an image on it. Thought nothing resolved, he continued to think about what happened and began investigating how he could achieve the effects we see today on photographic paper itself.
This group of works was primarily photographed in either the northern reaches of Alaska, the Sierra Mountains of California, or the Mojave Desert. The feeling and mood they exude are complex to describe. On one level they feel like the images could have been taken in the 19th century given their soft gradations of tone and slight blurring from the solarization process. “Sunburned GSP#493 (Sierras),” 2011 (gelatin silver print, 30 x 40 inches), is an example of this feeling. This image from the Sierras could have easily been captured as an image taken at dusk in the late 1900s, especially with the added touch of the silhouetting McCaw used in the image. The burned path of the sun in the sky is the only give away that this image could not have been taken then.
On another level, they operate as scientific recordings of the sun’s movement across the sky, which is a study that has been in practice for thousands of years and through every known culture in history. The element of constant experimentation only adds to the investigatory nature of the works. “Sunburned GSP#492 (North Slope Alaska/ 24 hours),” 2011 (14 – 10 x 4 inch gelatin silver prints), embodies the full record of the sun’s movements over the course of a day. Taken on the North Slope of Alaska during June or July of this year, McCaw is recording the fact that from May until the end of July, the sun never sets in that part of the world. Instead it moves in an oval in the sky, which is the result of the tiled axes of the earth.
Adding to the scientific investigation aspect of the work, each box of vintage paper behaves differently. This means that McCaw has to experiment with the paper until he finds the correct process to achieve his goal every time he gets a new one. Sometimes the paper does not work for his processes. In the development of his technique, he had to research the entire history of photographic papers from the mid to late 20th century as well as the alternative methods for developing them. This research and discovery ties this photographic process directly to the innovations and discoveries that were made not long after the medium itself was introduced in 1839.
The fact that McCaw has to travel to distant and extreme locations to capture his images recalls the journey’s of discovery and investigation that were being made to explore the world and document its animal species from the 1400s to the early 1900s. McCaw’s work, however, explores the movements of the sun itself and does not use it as a tool to determine one’s location on land or sea. The key difference of these landscape works from others, besides the technical process used to create them, is that they are primarily about the sun itself, and not about the land below it.
Our society has begun to investigate itself in a more penetrating and scientific way than it ever has. We are looking anew at how we use our resources and how we grow our food to help improve our nutrition and health. McCaw’s investigation and research into an eclipsed mode of photography, if not directly tied to this broader shift in society, has coincided with this shift and he has proven that there is more to learn and that is most certainly a viable medium of experimentation and production. He has also reminded us that looking around at the things present and unremarked on in life by many can be a source for both creative production. Drawing attention to the importance of the suns movements in the sky is, McCaw is pointing out that we should not forget the importance of it in our lives and recording those movements for us to see in a new way through his photographs.
“Ride Into the Sun,” the current show of works by Chris McCaw is on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery until Dec. 22. Reception – Thursday, Nov. 3, 5:30pm – 7:30pm. 49 Geary Street, Suite. 350, San Francisco, CA 94108. (415) 433-6879. Chris McCaw is also represented by Duncan Miller Gallery in Los Angeles. To see more of his work, visit his website here.