I recently found myself wanting to pare back photography to its very basics. I started as most people do – the “one camera, one lens” combination. But after lugging my SLR all over town, up hill and down dale, I decided to take it one step further. “Just a point and shoot,” I thought. My trusty Olympus XA4 proved more than adequate and quickly became the camera I’d grab first when escaping a house fire. But the itch to really simplify my photography still hadn’t quite been scratched. Not until I stumbled upon Solargraphy, that is.
Enticed by blue-tinged images of light arcs across a dark sky, with ghostly impressions of the scenery underneath, Solargraphy matches the uncertainty of pinhole photography with the joy of shooting outdoor landscapes. Pioneered around the year 2000 by the Solaris team, a group of experimental photographers, the technique has recently been made more user-friendly by projects such as the Solarcan.
The theory is simple – a basic pinhole camera (I use the term camera loosely – my first Solargraph was created using a coffee can with a hole punched in the side) contains a sheet of photographic paper. Affix the camera somewhere outdoors with the pinhole facing the arc of the Sun. Leave it for a few days, a few months, or more, then retrieve your completed Solargraph image. The Sun’s route across the sky burns into the paper, and over time the changing path results in a swathe of light – the longest of long exposures. The field of view captured is always very wide, distorted through the pinhole lens, and the scenery underneath the arcs of sunlight can make or break your solargraph (reflections on water work very well).
Armed with an Illy coffee can, some black duct tape and a sheet of Ilford Multigrade paper, I felt I’d finally found the ultimate type of simple photography. It was easy to punch a tiny hole in one side, stick a piece of tape over the hole, and in complete darkness insert the photo paper (emulsion side in, of course). I taped the lid firmly onto the top of the can and my solargraph camera was ready to go.
I was lucky enough to live in a house with a view of a viaduct over which the path of the Sun traced every day. On the shortest day in October (solargraphers often choose the equinoxes so as to capture the greatest difference between trails as the days lengthen or shorten) I cable-tied my camera up in the garden, peeled off the tape covering the pinhole, and set in for a long, long wait.
All winter, through ice and snow and wind, the camera remained outside, only occasionally nudged by cats, birds, and the weather. In April I decided I’d had enough and couldn’t wait any longer.
I took the camera down, peeled off the layers of tape, and proceeded to scan my image. There’s no need to develop images captured in this way, as the photo paper has almost entirely expended all its light-sensitive emulsion – it only needs scanning and then storing. Luckily my Epson film scanner can also scan paper. At first glance, the photo wasn’t much to write home about – a whitish-brown tinged piece of paper, with some dark tracing to suggest the Sun’s path. Bringing the image into Lightroom and inverting it soon showed better results (which is why most Solargraphs you see are blue – when inverted, the brown paper becomes greeny-blue).
The path of the Sun was clearly visible in the sky, along with the faint outline of the viaduct in the far distance. Surprisingly, my garden fence was more visible in the foreground than I’d expected. Unsurprisingly, there was some water damage in the middle of the image as evidenced by a few dark splotches and patches – I obviously wasn’t liberal enough with the application of the black gaffer tape.
But for a first try, I’m pleased with the resulting image – so much so that I backed the Solarcan Kickstarter this year. That will allow me to get my hands on a more professional-quality camera (a virgin beer can, with no risk of leakage), and I’ve been scouting Bristol for the best place to try the new camera.
There have been interesting results recently from solargraphers in the community. Loading their cameras with colour paper, or fixing them someplace that moves about has added new dimension to this simple form of photography. And despite its simplicity, Solargraphy is certainly something every photographer should try once – if only for a lesson in patience. Six months is a long time to wait for an image, but it’s worth it.