Like many inventors, Bay Area-based photographer Chris McCaw stumbled upon his discovery by accident. While taking pictures on a camping trip, McCaw forgot to close his camera lens and fell asleep for the night, unintentionally making an extremely long exposure. Later he found a hole in the sheet of film and realized it had been burned by the sun.
"Building my own camera was a really liberating process as a photographer. Sometimes you get into that rut of having big dreams of owning high-end camera gear. The reality is that if you use your imagination and a practical sense of what you want to accomplish, you can do most anything. I feel confident that I can pretty much make any camera I need (I'm currently up to 30x40" mounted on a garden wagon). I also just made one on the base of a wheelchair to hold a 125 lb aerial camera lens!
The wheelchair camera (my friends call it 'the sad robot') was just built last month. So far it is only an 8x10" camera, but it has a 600mm f/3.5 lens that projects an image about 16x20". I was told the lens came off a U2 spy plane -- it is a beast. I use a car jack to raise and lower the lens. I even needed to get a handicap ramp to get it into the van!"
Made in locations near and far, including the Sierras, the Arctic, and the Galapagos, McCaw's photographs doggedly trace the heavens with a surprisingly physical and intimate result. The carbon of the paper's sun-burned edges represents an important connection; carbon is an element found in the human body, the earth's crust, and throughout the universe. The photographs will be on display at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, beginning this week and continuing through January 19th, 2013.
To see images of McCaw's handmade cameras, click here.
"The hardest part was making the bellows (it took a few weeks to make a light tight one). I am proud of my improvisations, like using hacksaw blades on the camera back as the spring mechanisms to hold the ground glass and film holders...It is still working fine, though a few years back I paid someone to make a better bellows."
In 2006, McCaw began making exposures on vintage gelatin silver papers to create one-of-a-kind solarized positive images. Solarization---whereby a negative image inverts to a positive---can occur during long exposures. McCaw has to stand by to make sure that the silver-rich photographic papers don't catch fire while they are being scorched by the sun's path during the lengthy exposures.
Chris McCaw, in a recent interview on the Photo Eye blog, said that necessity played an important role in his work:
"I started building cameras purely out of poverty. In 1995 I had just graduated from art school and had no job, no money and a vintage 7"x17" Korona Banquet camera that was difficult to use. The vintage camera was worth something so I kept the film holders and sold the camera. With the money I paid my rent for 3 months and built a sturdier and lighter 7"x17" camera for about $150. Using just wood working skills from junior high school woodshop and my skateboard ramp building, I was able to build something functional -- not pretty, but functional."