Chris McCaw: 'Sunburn' Photography: No SPF Necessary : The Picture Show Images from Chris McCaw's Sunburn series track the movement of the sun across the sky with exposures ranging from 2 to 8 hours in length. And the direct sun-on paper exposures actually burn the prints, leaving gashes and streaks across the photos.
NPR logo 'Sunburn' Photography, No SPF Necessary

'Sunburn' Photography, No SPF Necessary

We all know the backyard trick: If you take a magnifying glass out on a bright summer day and focus the bright spot over a dry leaf, pretty soon you'll get some smoke and maybe a little scorching.

Photographer Chris McCaw uses that exact same principle in his latest project, Sunburn. Using his home-built large-format cameras, McCaw's images track the movement of the sun across the sky with exposures ranging from about 2 to 8 hours in length.

He uses black-and-white print paper instead of traditional negative film in his cameras -- which include a 20x24" and a 30x40" -- and the long, direct-sunlight exposures create positives, or truly solarized images. And because the sun is so highly focused, the paper actually burns, leaving gashes and streaks across the images.

What results, McCaw says, is a "unique piece where the sun has physically touched the surface and affected it. It's creation and destruction at the same time. Smoke comes out the camera -- it's really cool."

You might think that photographing the sun traversing the sky would result in a series of repetitive-looking images, but that's far from the case: McCaw carefully crafts each shot, framing mountains, waterways and trees, always cognizant of the sun's path.

"I'm really getting more in tune with where I am on the planet and what season it is. I might see an interesting photograph but realize I can't photograph that until the winter solstice or summer solstice," McCaw says. "I have a little list of places I need to go near the equinox."

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