The Visibility of time

February 10, 2011 at 10:06 pm

This post is a repost from the British Journal of Photography, click HERE for the full article on photographers who make their own cameras.  Chris McCaw,s work captured me in particular as it is a great example of the visibility of time within photography. You can see more of Chris’ work at

Chris McCaw
Born in Daly City, California in 1971, Chris McCaw first went into a darkroom at the age of 13 and got well and truly bitten by the photography bug. Initially photographing friends in the local skateboarding and punk scene, he got his first 4×5 in 1992 and got into platinum printing shortly afterwards. By 1995, he had learnt to make his own large-format camera, teaching himself to fold his own bellows from a single page of photocopied text. 
“Initially it was to do with finances – I wanted to use these large cameras and couldn’t afford to do it any other way,” he says. “The first camera I built was a 7×17 format, which I made for $150. I took it everywhere, even out to photograph friends skateboarding, because it was so liberating knowing that I could fix it myself.”
The 7×17 proved hard to carry around though so, in 1998, in preparation for a trip around Ireland, McCaw made his second camera, a 5×12 that is, as he points out, “still a historic format”. “I found two film holders that would hold 5×7 so I cut them up and adapted them to create one 5×12 holder,” he says.
“Once you open the door [on making cameras] you can figure out pretty much anything, and the simplest designs are usually the cheapest and most functional.”
Chris McCaw with one of the many large-format cameras he has made over the years. This model uses an ex-military reconnaissance lens and photosensitive paper to record the movement of the sun. Image © Chris McCaw.
McCaw likes the immediacy of contact printing, rather than using enlargers so, to make bigger prints, he’s made much larger cameras. For his Sunburn series, he made one of his biggest cameras yet – a 30×40 monster using five ex-military aerial reconnaissance lenses, which cost the US Army tens of thousands of pounds to make but which he picked up for $950 on Ebay. These giant optics let in a lot of light, but McCaw needs it for the Sunburn pictures, which are shot directly onto photosensitive paper. Putting the paper in place of film, he points the camera towards the sky and focuses the lens to infinity, then opens the shutter and leaves it for up to 12 hours. The papers record the surrounding landscape and the passage of the sun, whose light is sometimes so intense it literally burns the paper.
Ethereally beautiful and intimately tied to the process of photo-making, McCaw only happened upon the technique.
“I was on camping trip with some friends and we drank a load of whiskey and fell asleep,” he says. “Making an all-night photograph of the stars, I left my camera aperture open and the lens focused to infinity and, when I woke up a few hours after sunrise, I nearly threw the film away. But then I developed it and realised the sun had solarised the film negative. I thought ‘That’s got some real potential’, and spent the next three years trying to make film-based sunburns and printing the resulting burned negative in platinum, until I used photographic paper.
Chris McCaw uses extremely large-format cameras and vintage photosensitive papers to make the images in his Sunburned series, which record the movements of the sun. Sunburned GSP # 429 (Sunset/Sunrise, Arctic Circle, Alaska), 2010, a unique 8×10-inch gelatin silver paper negatives. Image © Chris McCaw.
“The first paper I tried, a modern Ilford paper, didn’t work – I just ended up with a black rectangle with a burnt hole in it – but when I tried some papers from the 1970s and 80s I got a solarised result. Now I use papers from the 1960s, 70s and 80s; every day I’m on Craigslist and Ebay.
I love that the work is so basic, so directly related to the medium and light and being grounded in the world. You can tell by the angle of the sun where I am on the planet and what season it is; because of this I am more in tune with the seasonal changes of the sun and its relationship to the landscape. That’s part of the reason I drove from San Francisco to the Arctic Circle in Alaska for the summer solstice in June.” In fact, re-using old lenses and papers is key to McCaw’s work for philosophical as well as practical reasons – people are abandoning analogue photography, he says, but we’ve still barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with it.
He’s currently collecting 50mm standard lenses, binding them together to create huge photographic grids, with which he plans to create Muybridge-related imagery of the sun.
“I made a camera two weeks ago using 20 50mm lenses, next I hope to do a 20×24 grid,” he says. “I feel like, ‘I’ve made a 20-lens camera, I can make any camera I need, to create the ideas I have. I’m not restricted by needing expensive precision machines made from mahogany, leather bellows and brass, and because of this, my imagination 
in regards to photography are wide open.”

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