The PhotoBook

December 8, 2009

Chris McCaw – Sunburn

Copyright Chris McGaw 2009 courtesy Cavallo Point Resort

I enjoy McCaw’s frankness in how his project Sunburn came about, the effects of “whisky” and not being conscious to close the shutter of his camera after a night long exposure. Rather than trash the results of the night, he decided to follow serendipity and chance to investigate the results. And there was something that awaken his inner spirit to further pursue this random act of creativity.

Whereas most of us have been repeatedly told not to focus our camera’s lens on the sun, which could ruin the film, the shutter and who knows what. McCaw found himself running counter-initiative to this sage advice, because in fact he wants to sear, burn, destroy, deteriorate, degrade and otherwise trash his film or enlarging paper when loaded in his film holders. The name of his project, Sunburn, is very descriptive of his creative intent.

Incidentally, this book has brought back memories as a kid, wondering around trying to create havoc with my little handy-dandy plastic magnifying glass, later upgrading to a glass, an even more destructive model. Melting crayons, frying ants and trying to start little fires, the things very young guys seem to be attracted to. I was fascinated with what this simple little device could perform in conjunction with sunlight and a little skill and dexterity in focusing it into a small little intense point of light. Oh, yes, and I quickly learned not to focus that bright sun-spot anywhere on my skin or clothes.

I also wonder if there is some subconscious link back to McCaw’s youth and what little fires he has started from time to time. So in one sense, this body of work has a playful, but sinister quality, to its conception and creative inquiry.

McCasw creates one of kind photographic objects with indelible marks on paper and film substrates. This series can be segmented into two genres; minimalist abstract marks on paper/film or photogram light-drawings. Both employ various burning patterns and processes, not an entirely controllable process. The results are born both of experience and serendipity, couched in mystery.

His marks made on film usually have hard edges, appearing like glowing orbs, molten balls, with a white stark center and a dark circular ring. Occasionally these orbs are a little thicker on the bottom edge, adding weight and creating a non symmetrical circular design. His marks on paper generally have softer edges. The circular patterns, orbs and streaks are cerebral, vague gestures, employing random patterns, frequently created by multi-exposures.

His abstract minimalist photographs are monotone fields with a series of marks. His designs vary from wide open expanse, populated by of streaks and intermittent orbs, to a field of marks, much like a shot-up sign you might find in the deserts of Nevada. He employs a multitude of designs, searing strokes, pinpoints or soft radiant spheres. The resulting damage to the film and paper creates subtle color changes, but occasionally with sooty black edges, evidence where the material has been burned and deeply scared.

When McCaw repeatedly decomposes the camera, he creates random and abstract pattern of marks that have varying intensity, with a slight change in modulating colors. Depending on the intensity and duration of the exposure on each type of medium, his marks can have either hard edges or soft edges. A single mark may have an interesting combination of both hard and soft tonalities blending together, simulating a meditative state of being here, while not being here.

The shape of the spheres are much like the sun itself; and are portraits of the sun and indirectly sunshine. When allowing the sun to continuously track through one frame, the effect is a monotone rainbow, gently arching across the pictorial frame. The marks are also a form of “light” writings, a vague language that McCaw has developed.

The other series of photographs is related to the photograms, the earliest of photographic processes first developed by Henry Fox Talbot. A photogram, meaning light drawing, is a latent image created by a long exposure of a subject retained on photo-sensitive paper, a creative process still utilized by photographs, such as the late Jerry Burchfield. A disorienting aspect of photograms is that they are negative images, with a reverse tonality.

The subjects in a photogram are usually not sharply defined, but provide vague shapes and mass that allow some contextual recognition, contrasting with a sharply defined sun-burn. It creates a yin-yang set of opposites, creating dark and mysterious images.

Some of the resulting photograms capture what appears to be a meteor streaking through the sky. Or perhaps documents the landing of alien space craft, or something from the fourth dimension. Multiple images of the sun-burns crossing a dark sky, much like the work of Mark Klett and Michael Lundgren, symbolize the passing of time. There is something vague and elusive, but yet familiar with these photograms.  There is a faint definition of shapes and mass that begins to anchor our memories, but disconnected enough to leave us adrift, wondering what is this mysterious place. The sunburns weave through this stange landscape or create a searing pattern across the reflecting waters below.

Although this creative process could result from playfulness, it is also an act of violence, that relates to anger, frustration and fear. These images are indicative of a love/hate relationship. At a personal level, I sense his love of photography and working in this medium, while the physical mayhem of his medium strongly hints at a deep frustration, perhaps with the process, it’s limitations, control or resulting economic conditions as an artist or other personal issues. These images have a strong emotional content, like a torn and shredded canvas that has been hacked at by the painter.

Attacking his film and paper can also be construed as an attack on the esthetics of traditionalist and modern photography, where a pristine and perfect print is revered. There is no pristine print left in the traditional sense. But the creation of a one of a kind photographic object is the antithesis of postmodernism, which denies the idea of the individual artist. So McCaw is working within that in-between place of Modernism and Postmodernism, and I think the evidence will eventually show him to be more in the Postmodern side of this equation.

In yet another sense,  I find McCaw’s photographs reflect an environmental concern with global warming. The patterns and searing marks are symbolic of the possible effects by a sun that is not modulated by a protective outer atmosphere. A tome to what could be resulting conditions for mankind with a sun that burns, sears, and subsequently destroys, and that mankind is indeed playing with fire.

In the end, it is in the act of destroying his medium that McCaw is creating something new and unique. Perhaps like the seeds of species of tree that requires fire and heat to germinate and grow anew. From the ashes of destruction, Hope has been found.

Consistent with the other books in the Cavallo Point series, this is a small hardbound book with nice printing but the usually issues with a print-on-demand glued in binding, although I would not let that hinder a purchase of this interesting and provocative book.

By Douglas Stockdale

1 Comment »

  1. […] NOTE: McCaw’s 2008 photobook “Sunburn”, was recently reviewed on The PhotoBook, which can be found here. […]

    Pingback by Chris McCaw new works at Duncan Miller Gallery « The Photo Exchange — December 15, 2009 @ 9:51 pm


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