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Solar Glyphs

Chris McCaw’s Sunburn Series –

Every ancient culture has a sun legend: Neolithic petroglyphs depict solar barges carrying the sun across the sky while the Egyptian, Greek, Vedic, Nordic, Chinese, Japanese, North and South American Indian cultures had  sun deities and sun myths, representing the sun as a source of both life and death.

Modern man knows that our sun, a yellow dwarf star, is about five billion years old. It is 92.5 million miles away and travelling at 186 thousand miles per second , its light takes approximately 8.2 minutes to reach earth. The sun’s photosphere -from the Greek word for light=photo and sphaira=ball, is a constant fusion of hydrogen and helium, which produces our sunlight. Please click on the image to enlarge and for all artwork details.



Sunburned GSP #166 (Mojave/Winter solstice full day), 2007


Sunburn #1 (Utah/sunrise), 2003. Originally titled- Sunrise, 2003

The first photograph of the sun is credited to the French physicists Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault who made fascinating daguerreotypes of the sun in April of 1845. Warren de la Rue developed the first heliograph (different from the Niepce heliograph), a telescope fitted with a specially designed focal plane shutter that allowed him to photograph the sun using the wet-collodion glass negative process.

The sun is enveloped in a chromosphere- literally “color-ball”- of the red H-alpha spectral line of hydrogen which can only be seen through a special H-alpha filter or with the naked eye during a total solar eclipse.  In 1860 La Rue travelled to Spain and photographed, for the first time, a full solar eclipse, for which he later received a gold medal from the Royal astronomical Society. His daguerreotype recorded the first evidence of the sun’s chromosphere. Since that time, eclipse chasers have travelled the world to photograph full solar eclipses.

Photography means to draw with light; particularly sunlight, and nowhere, since the gentlemen scientist photographers of the 19th century, is drawing with sunlight more literally taken than in the work of Chris McCaw. McCaw’s Sunburn Series are solarized heliographs..or sun-burned pictures.

Sunburned GSP#317 (Pacific Ocean), 2009

In 2003, when photographing star tracks, McCaw overslept and woke up to a smoking camera caused by the sun burning a hole into the film. Like his 19th century predecessors whose endless curiosity and creative experiments led to the development of photography, McCaw went back to his darkroom with the idea that he might actually have an image, only to discover that the sheet film had literally solarized; reversing negative to positive. When he developed the film, he found that it was completely over exposed and negative was black, with a hole burnt into it. McCaw, instead of thinking of it as a failure, became fascinated. He began to experiment and eventually realized that he could expose gelatin-silver, fiber-based, photographic paper instead of film and capture a reversed image of the landscape beneath the track of the sun. The extreme over exposure solarizes the paper and the sun, pinpointed through the lens, burns itself into in the paper. The gelatin layer in the paper acts as a fire retardant and prevents the paper from combusting entirely inside the film holder.

True solarization (sometimes referred to as classic or reversal solarization) is not to be confused with the Sabatier Effect – the reversal of a portion of a photographic image resulting from prolonged exposure to an extremely bright light. Solarization was first noted in overexposed daguerreotypes. In contemporary gelatin-silver, fiber based papers,  solarization reversal is a result of the release of bromide ions caused by very intense development in the area of overexposure. The exposure necessary to produce true solarization is in the range of 1,000 to10,000 times used to produce total black in the negative, and in contemporary practice it is a rare phenomenon.

McCaw found that he was able to modify the development of the exposed paper with chemical restrainers which allowed him to develop and fix the image before the extreme over exposure made the paper go completely black. This produced a solarized landscape under a tracked-image sun that oft-times burned itself into the paper. Through endless and time consuming experimentation, McCaw discovered that only vintage photographic papers had enough silver to reverse and withstand the intense burning.

To produce these one-of-a-kind images, McCaw must find old boxes of paper and then experiment with each box until he discovers its optimum development time. McCaw states, “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. Not only is the resulting image a representation of the subject photographed, but part of the subject (the sun) has become an active participant in the printmaking….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 in my head. Currently I am working out ideas ranging from large 30”x40” images, mosaics of paper, (documenting) solar locomotion.”

Sunburned GSP#323 (Santa Cruz Mtns/expand & contract), 2009

McCaw’s work is technologically fascinating; but it is the mythic implications of the subject matter that make the work stand out. From the advent of mankind, the travels of the sun marking the seasons, gave rise to monumental calandars such as Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon, and in contemporary culture –Turell’s Rodan Crater.

Archeoastonomers study astronomical observations as recorded by ancient cultures including celestial lore, mythology, and the evidence left behind by now extinct civilizations. The Great Pyramid at Giza, the Mayan Palace of the Governor at Uxmal in the Yucatan, numerous lithic monuments throughout the British Isles and Northeast America, were all constructed to mark the path of the sun in order to subscribe the seasons. Archeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy both investigate man’s interaction with the cosmos.

According to ISSAC, the International Society for Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture, “archaeoastronomy has expanded to include the interrelated interests in ancient and native calendar systems, concepts of time and space, mathematics, counting systems and geometry, surveying and navigational techniques as well as geomancy and the origins of urban planning.”

The marking of the passing of time, by the merciless sun god, is anachronistic. No one has sun-dials in their garden anymore, much less moon-dials. We keep our contact with the sun to a minimum, and notice the moon only in passing when it is full.

Mc Caws images, with their minimalist modernism, evoke the time between what we were, and what we are now, and how fascinated, yet disconnected we are, to the single star, by which we live and will one day die.

Sunburned GSP#123 (Tahoe/expanding), 2007

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