Chris McCaw, Marking Time

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Datz Press (here). Hardcover with printed jacket, 22.5 x 28.8 cm, 140 pages, 62 reproductions, with 3 multi-page foldouts. The images were made between 2007 and 2022. Includes an essay by Leah Olmann and an afterword by the artist (both in English/Korean). In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the total solar eclipse passed across a wide swath of the eastern United States last month, the urge to somehow document the rare celestial event was altogether contagious. But of course, armed with just a smartphone camera, such a photographic task wasn’t all that simple. Many in my own viewing party tried to shoot through one eye of a pair of safety glasses (while simultaneously looking through another pair), which vaguely worked, at least enough to capture a hint of what was happening. But if there was ever an event that should catalyze interest in the meticulous solar photography of Chris McCaw, the recent eclipse was certainly that moment.

For the past two decades, McCaw has been making photographs of the sun, chasing its movements to the farthest reaches of the United States and beyond (even up into the Arctic Circle), in search of the best viewing situations and conditions. McCaw long ago learned about the hazards and complexities involved in photographing his chosen subject, and in the intervening years, he has evolved an array of hand built large format cameras that have been precisely optimized for this particular task. Many of his cameras are equipped with military grade lenses (the kind typically used in surveillance), and instead of loading film inside, he places fiber-based gelatin silver paper in the holder and allows the sun come through the lens to illuminate it. As a child, if you ever played with a magnifying glass and the light of the sun, you know what comes next – if the exposure is concentrated long enough in the same spot, it will burn the paper, and McCaw actively controls this process (as much as is reasonably possible), creating long exposures (of up to several days) that sear across the paper in spots, lines, and arcs and solarize the visible surroundings (perhaps an ocean view or mountain vista) along the way.

Marking Time is an elegantly mediative survey of McCaw’s work, neither a comprehensive catalog nor a systematically chronological retrospective, but more of an expressive compilation of the different experimental and aesthetic approaches McCaw has employed over the years. The book samples works from a range of projects, many of which have run concurrently or are still in progress, including the best known “Sunburn” series, as well as images from the “Heliograph,” “Poly-Optic,” “Cirkut,” and “Tidal” projects, intermingling the images into a single integrated flow. In many ways, this intentional heterogeneity builds on and extends the feeling of McCaw’s 2016 gallery show in New York (reviewed here, with the same title), which took a similar approach to presenting a selection of the artist’s various working methods.

What quickly becomes clear in paging through Marking Time is just how much deliberate and intentional mark making is at the center of McCaw’s art – the sun is making the burns, but McCaw is largely controlling how and where those burns are located compositionally, with some elements of chance always at play. He can make single dots, lines of dots, lines, arcs, curves, and longer undulations, all depending of the path of the sun across the visible field of sky and how long he leaves the shutter open. Of course, underneath McCaw’s artistic practice lies a methodical sense of scientific statistical measurement, where the locations of the sun at any given moment, as seen from any given location, in specific weather conditions, must be precisely understood or the whole process becomes hopelessly broken. Over the years, as McCaw has perfected the more straightforward aspects of the “Sunburn” series, he has gone on to introduce further possibilities, including multiple exposures (to make multiple lines, intersecting lines, or time shifted arcs), multiple lenses (to make gridded arrays), and even more arcane equipment, like his modified 1913 Cirkut camera, which rotates to make panoramic views on large rolls of film. In this way, McCaw feels like a restless tinkerer, experimenter, and lone wolf artist, toting his bulky gear out into the deep and distant woods like the intrepid survey photographers of the 19th century.

To my eye, the extended time element of McCaw’s work is what gives it its enduring sense of magic – when the sun traces a sweeping arc across the nearly boundless sky (and therefore across his paper), we see traces of the hidden system of the universe, one that we likely wouldn’t be able to easily comprehend without McCaw’s ingenious images. In his pictures, we see rotation, mathematics, predictable order, and the slow passing of time, which McCaw then transforms into awe-inducing, power-of-nature-based, artistic expression. In this way, his works are surprisingly humble, in that even when he is at his most innovative in terms of his mark making, McCaw never really gets between the viewer and the power of the cosmos.

Marking Time is a truly lush publication, with care and attention invested in all its design and construction details. The photobook uses three paper colors (white, light grey, and black) as backdrops, which are then quietly matched to the tonalities of the different images. Effortless foldouts extend to provide ample space for the widest multi-panel works, and all the caption information is pushed to the back of the book, allowing each image to float without distraction. And while in the simplest sense, McCaw’s work’s are executed in black-and-white, in practice, the burning and solarization effects tweak the chemicals enough to create hints of yellow, orange, and brown, especially along the burn sites, and the publication reproduces this subtlety of color with properly tactile fidelity.

In the best of McCaw’s skyscapes, invisible passing time is lyrically measured and recorded, using the sun as an intermediary of sorts, in ways that are both literally documentary and in some cases almost abstract. They ask us to consider the wondrously unexpected astronomical context of our everyday existence, teasing out motions and cycles that we don’t normally feel or notice. Marking Time allows us to recreate that wonder each time we pull the book from the shelf, reminding us of nuanced rhythms of our ever spinning planet.

Collector’s POV: Yossi Milo Gallery in New York (here), Haines Gallery in San Francisco (here), and Candela Gallery in Richmond (here). McCaw’s work has started to intermittently appear in the secondary markets in the past decade, with recent prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $12000.

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