Tag Archives: book reviews

sunburn–the good kind

Until a couple weeks ago I hadn’t bought any art or photo books this year. In today’s online age something really has to speak to me for me to want to make space for it at home in tangible, doorstop form. Chris McCaw’s new–and first–book, Sunburn, was the release that broke this year’s bookless streak.

Sunburn book cover
Sunburn / Chris McCaw.
Richmond, VA: Candela, 2012.
Dimensions: 10 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.
96 pages, 43 plates
ISBN 978-0-9845739-2-9

From cover to cover this is a book of photographs incorporating one main subject: the sun. But this is the sun photographed in a way that’s never been done before.

Chris uses giant lenses, many of them weighing dozens of pounds, and aims them at a sheet of vintage photo paper inside big cameras of his own making. All that light generates a lot of heat, and the paper inside the camera often scorches the areas where the sun’s image falls on it. Most of the exposures are many minutes to many hours long, so that as the sun moves through the sky it burns lines and arcs onto the paper in the camera. Sometimes little fires break. Photo paper isn’t used to all this light, and in addition to flaming out every now and then it can do some wacky things with a process called solarization, where some parts of the image are flipped from negative to positive. In a few of the images you can also see some rich colors others than black or white or gray in the danger zone around the sun’s image, a reaction of the paper’s chemistry to being used in ways it wasn’t designed to be used. (The book’s cover image above demonstrates this nicely.)

The method of working would remain an interesting anecdote if it didn’t result in some pretty startling photographs. Be sure to click and enlarge these images to begin to see all their beautiful little subtleties. You’ll be glad you did.

Chris McCaw Sunburn Number 65 (Nevada)

Chris McCaw. Sunburned GSP#65 (Nevada), 2007. 16″x20″ unique gelatin silver paper negative. Private collection.

This early piece shows the classic burn-through with the sun’s path.


Chris McCaw. Sunburned GSP#190, 2008. 20″x24″ unique gelatin silver paper negative. Fidelity Investments Collection.

In this and the next image the sun didn’t scorch through the paper, but it did some cool things with the branches in the foreground.

Chris McCaw Sunburn 325

Chris McCaw. Sunburned GSP#325, 2009. 4″x5″ unique gelatin silver paper negative. Private collection.

Some photography concerns itself with the world outside the camera. It’s photography about people, places, issues and ideas. Other kinds of photography do a lot of navel-gazing obsessing about the process of photography itself. This second camp expresses itself in lots of different ways, including images produced using antique photographic processes, toy cameras, camera-less photograms, or images created by the chemical reaction of the entrails of bunnies with color photographic paper. (No, I’m not making this up. The photographer Adam Fuss has a body of work that apparently ended up with his family and friends eating many meals that featured rabbit as the main course.) I think Chris’s work falls a little more on the camera-geek side of the equation, and his work is instantly appealing to photographers familiar with the materials he works with. But the resulting photos of landscape with a sun’s path burned out of the sky, with mysterious flips of positive and negative, dark and light, are pretty wonderful things that viewers attuned to beautiful objects will immediately connect with.


Chris McCaw. Sunburned GSP#541(Gal├ípagos), 2012. 8″x10″ unique gelatin silver paper negative.

The sun’s path changes with the seasons and with your location on the earth. If you want to have your sun rise up the center of the photo in a perfectly straight line you have to do some traveling to the earth’s equator, which is exactly what Chris did, taking this photo off the coast of the Gal├ípagos Islands earlier this year. Wow, huh? The sun’s reflection really makes this image.

And there’s a sort of companion piece to this one, a big multi-panel panorama he shot up in Alaska’s Brooks Range, where the sun never sets as it marks a long, slow parabola over the mountains on the horizon over the course of more than a day. Double wow. (It’s on pages 68-69 of his book.)

And did I mention Chris is a really cool guy? A few years back I was on a little desert camping trip to Anza Borrego with four other photographers, and Chris was one of them. At that point he’d figured out that there was something really interesting when you burn a photographic negative, but hadn’t yet worked out his current method that uses big sheets of photographic paper that serve as the final artwork, scorch marks and all. To think, I knew the Chris way back when before impending greatness.

So…if you have a big, rectangular stocking to fill later this month, this might be the perfect thing to put in it!


Oh, and I forgot to mention this impressive frontispiece to the book. The image is Sunburned GSP#573(eclipse), 2012. Cool enough, but the page has been die-cut to give you a sense of how it would be to handle one of these photos. I didn’t shoot the back of the page, but there you’ll find reproduced the backside of the image with scorch marks and Chris’s notations. It’s for things like this that the word-elves invented the word “awesome.”

All images in this post are copyright the artist, and are used here with his permission.

book review: california native gardening

Book coverHelen Popper’s recent book (March, 2012) California Native Gardening hit my mailbox a few weeks ago. It’s been reviewed [ here ] and [ there ], and it looked worth checking out.

The quick take on this new guide: Yes, it’s a good book, and it’s a nice supplement to other books out there on horticultural uses of California native plants.

Look at its title and you’ve got a good idea of its focus: California Native Gardening. That’s the active verb-noun “gardening” at the end, and the gerund signals that this is a book about doing and not just sitting back and admiring.

The core of the book is organized around the months of the year. This being California, it begins with October, the beginning of our “spring,” our annual renaissance. It’s a useful device to get readers to rethink traditional notions of a garden’s cycles and get used to how plants behave in our Mediterranean climate.

Each month presents you with a list of tasks for the month, and each of the tasks is developed into several paragraphs of explanation. May’s essays are: Let Wildflower Seeds Ripen, Pinch and Prune, Propagate with Cuttings, Water Now Before the Heat of Summer, Plant and Sow, and Weed and Mulch. (Different months have different lists of things to do.) Each area under the larger headings generally gives you a short list of plants that you would be applying that task to that month. Under the section on cuttings, for instance, we’re told that several shrubs and perennials are good for attempting propagation by cuttings this month, including golden currant, wild mock orange, coyote bush, tree anemone and yerba buena.

Lest you fear that the book will leave you exhausted after all your chores, each month also ends with a section called What’s in Bloom. Here you’ll learn some of the plants that are likely to be in bloom this month, with May hosting flowers from sulfur buckwheat, California phacelia, grape soda lupine and western columbine, among over a dozen others. You can sit back and enjoy the blooms or add the plants to a shopping list for next fall in case the garden is lacking flowers during parts of the year.

O'brien book cover

The ecological niche that this book occupies places it in the company of cultural guides like the under-appreciated Care & Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens by Bart O’Brien, Betsey Landis and Ellen Mackey. The O’Brien book organizes its garden tasks around plants and what they require throughout the year. California Native Gardening uses the month-by-month approach, which sometimes spreads out tasks for one plant over several months. For instance we learn that coyote bush, is a good candidate for cuttings in January, February, May and September, which can be a lot of page-flipping if you’re interest in a plant and not necessarily the month. Both methods of presenting tasks are imperfect ways to organize information, and you can decide for yourself which one you might respond to. Also, California Native Gardening carries a wider selection of plants from around the state. If anything, it seems to have a slight–not huge–bias to the north, though I could be imagining this. Related to this thought, many of the plants that make up a typical native plantscape also come from the north. I’d be curious to see what others think on this point.

So, in the end, I’d definitely recommend this book to cover the active gardening activities of having a California native plant garden. It doesn’t present a lot of information on garden planning and design, something that is better dealt with in books written with that purpose in mind. (My favorite in that category is Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.) But whose library consists of only one book? Add this to yours.

PS: It’s got nice pictures, too.