A Heliocentric Fixation: Chris McCaw's Sunburn Series


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Viewed from the vantage point of the history of our existence, it has not been a particularly long time that we have known that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the other way around. Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD) wrote of the Earth that “it alone remains unmoveable, whilst all things revolve around it”, while Aristotle’s theory of 55 concentric spheres, with Earth right in the middle, carried on almost unchallenged until the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th century.

But, prior to our ability to see and travel into space, considering all they had to go on was the daily sight of the Sun curving across the sky, can we blame them?

A large format, fibre-based gelatine silver photograph demonstrates the movement of the Sun: a scorched arc sears across the composition, the dark black line disrupted only where the paper has been literally burned through. Chris McCaw (1971, USA) harnesses the sunlight to create his paper-based Sunburn series, using his camera much like a sophisticated version of burning an ant with a magnifying glass. The Sun, he says, has “physically come through the lens and put its hand onto the final piece.”

The effect was initially created by mistake, when McCaw attempted to capture a night scene and left the lens open too long, but the artist was fascinated by the solar effect and decided to pursue it further. Working with long exposure times ranging from 15 minutes to 24 hours, McCaw creates his compositions carefully, whether tracking a graceful path or portraying intermittent positions, with holes dotting the print when McCaw decides to expose the paper to the light.

A scorched arc sears across the composition, the dark black line disrupted only where the paper has been literally burned through

Each image is unique, due to the fact that McCaw photographs directly onto the paper, resulting in a rare and limited range of photographs, exhibiting a beautiful physicality as the paper curves away from the sunburned tears, the charred edges a sharp and meaningful shade of black.

The camera remains fixed in place, while the Sun moves. Yet, as we know now, it’s actually us moving round the Sun.


The arc illustrates the Sun’s position compared to earth, the movement of which is in actuality straight, but when compressed to a flat image, appears curved, a phenomenon that contemporary physicist Stephen Hawking explained with regard to the flight of airplanes, writing, “although it follows a straight line in three-dimensional space, its shadow follows a curved path on the two-dimensional ground,” or sky, in this instance.

McCaw plans the photographs, though he is dependent on space-time conditions: “I have had to move myself and my equipment to specific locations, at specific times of the year, in order to capture the compositions I wanted.” He discovered the beneficial use of vintage fibre-based gelatine silver paper, mostly from the ‘60s and ‘70s, through much trial and error and years of experimentation: the burning of gelatine creates an effect McCaw was unable to find with more modern paper.

McCaw’s work harks back to ancient science, reflecting a precision and dedication to a subject, experimenting, questioning and making mistakes, until it all fits together in a perfect order. These unique pieces join an ancient dialogue that is still continuing, as knowledge of the universe continues to expand and change.


This article appeared in GUP #48, the Mixing it Up issue, which is available to purchase on our webshop. Chris McCaw is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and his work can be viewed by appointment.


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