Loooooong time exposure

I don’t know what you think about long time exposures, but what I see – at least online – is always the same boring seascape with the water surface smoothed out by using an exposure time of several seconds or the even more obvious waterfall image with the cascade of water softened to a white fuzzy cloth hanging down the cataracts. Ever so often these images run under the category “fine art”, but to be honest neither do I know what this overused term describing a certain type of photographic image really means, nor do I think that these images are particularly innovative or exciting.

What I was after with my latest little project was kind of the opposite to “fine art” and may be termed “raw art” instead. I wanted to capture the sunlit landscape with a pinholed beer can. The blurry images showing the trail of the sun which gets steeper and steeper over several months towards the summer solstice always fascinated me. Usually the landscape on these solargraphies is somewhat dark and only faintly visible. The basis for this kind of photography is cheap and simple. You need a can or any light tight box with a pinhole in it and a piece of photographic paper. The latter is sensitive to light, but not as sensitive as film. What normally turns out as a positive in the darkroom is used here to produce a negative on paper. This can be scanned with an ordinary flatbed scanner and inverted in post processing. A clean and straightforward process with no chemicals involved. There is plenty of how-to videos online and after watching some of these, I made six pinhole beer can cameras, three to be used by myself and the other three to be sent to family members all over Germany. All cameras were installed around the 21st December last year to start with the lowest possible sun trail on the horizon. The plan was to expose the photo paper for the entire half year until 21st June 2021 to record the full amplitude of the sun’s yearly trail.

One camera, which I had mounted on a fence at a woodland’s edge only survived for about two weeks. Someone got too curious, ripped the camera-fixing duck tape off the fence post, threw it into the landscape and took the camera with him (or her). But the other one which was mounted on a dead tree trunk made it throughout winter and spring. I collected it last week, since I feared that over the coming weeks the sun trail would be so high up in the sky that it may run out of the image. The remaining beer cans are still in position and will be collected in about a month’s time.

And here is what I got from my first harvest:

Isn’t that remarkable? A shutter opened for a little more than 5 months resulted in this amazing record of time with uninterrupted bright trails from left to right showing sunny days and scattered trail lines marking temporary cloud covers. Almost half a year burned into a single frame. At least for me that’s something to think about! What is time? What is a day, a week, a month?  What is the relationship between the seemingly static landscape and the daily changing position of our cosmic energy source? These are questions which I see arising from this kind of pictures and this is exactly what I love about this unusual type of photography. You look at the image and it throws questions at you, uncertainties, even uncomfortable feelings. I know, solargraphy is not so unusual and it had been used for more than a century even to solve scientific problems, but nevertheless these images are still fascinating today. Even more so, since most contemporary photographs are taken with little high-tech computers called digital cameras and high-tech lenses and produce these superclean and ultrasharp images we’re confronted with everyday and everywhere. Solargraphy images by contrast are just the opposite. They are raw, fuzzy, even gritty sometimes and the only device needed to make them is a dark box with a hole in it.

For those of you interested in the technicalities of the image: I used 30 year old ORWO silk matte paper, which is known to produce some aberrant color gradients in solargraphy images. The final image was scanned as color positive with an Epson V700 flatbed scanner at a resolution of 800 dpi and post-processed in Photoshop. Now that I know that the setup works as expected, I am very curious to see the results of the remaining four beer cans. Once I have the scans ready, I will certainly share them in a future post.

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