Chris McCaw is a landscape photographer, but you'd be hard-pressed to guess that if you happened upon his work at the Center for Creative Photography.
His 2008 "Sunburned GSP #210 (Mojave)" is the lone McCaw piece in the big show The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography. Despite its title, this work, a "unique gelatin silver paper negative," doesn't seem to have much to do with the real world. It's warm and sepia-colored, with a pleasing, shadowy surface. You might guess that it's an abstraction of the desert floor in the Mojave, a stretch of sand, maybe.
But this tranquil tone poem is interrupted by a sharp tear in the paper. Burnt around the edges, the cut is like a wound, shooting up across the paper in a sharp diagonal. What could it possibly mean?
McCaw put an end to the mystery at a lecture at the CCP last week. "Sunburned," he said, is "a subtle little taste of landscape," picturing the Santa Cruz Mountains in California.
Sure enough, if you go back and look closely, you can see the faint, very faint, outline of mountain peaks across the bottom of the print. And that tear in the paper? That's the sun, shooting across the sky.
For five years now, McCaw has found a way to capture the sun's heat and light. Using giant cameras that he builds himself, he makes long-exposure shots in the wilderness, training the sun's rays on his photographic paper for so long that they burn right through it. In these artworks, as he himself said, creation is paired with destruction.
McCaw discovered his unusual technique through serendipity; he was making a regular nighttime long-exposure shot of the stars during a camping trip in the back country. He and his pals had so enjoyed a jug of whiskey that McCaw overslept, he related, and he failed to get up at dawn as planned. When he finally did roust himself, he discovered that the hot sun burned a hole into the negative. But it wasn't just any hole. It was a long streak that recorded the sun's passage through the heavens.
The accident gave him a new way to think about photography. In this digital age, he began recapitulating the history of photography, "writing with light" on paper. He started building huge cameras with lenses big enough to let in lots of light, and eventually he switched from negatives to old-fashioned photo-sensitive paper.
With the long exposures, the images sear themselves right onto the paper—kind of the way a pinhole camera does. Occasionally McCaw blocks off the lenses at regular intervals, so that instead of a burned diagonal streak, he gets a series of solar circles rising and setting over the earth. The one-of-a-kind artworks are sometimes recognizable at landscapes, and sometimes, like "Sunburned," they're more elusive.
The work is lovely and smart, though, and unique enough that it's catapulted its maker to sudden success in the art world. McCaw, of San Francisco, is just one of 20 contemporary photographers in the CCP exhibition. A traveling show curated by independent scholar Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision is an intellectually rigorous look at abstraction in all its forms, from the good to the bad to the ugly.
All of its photographers are experimenting with the medium in some way, and many of them, like McCaw, are playing around with the history of photography.
Canadian Michael Flomen goes back to photograms, the earliest version of photography pioneered in mid-19th century by William Henry Fox Talbot. Avoiding the camera altogether, Flomen exposes large sheets of photographic paper to the light and allows random images to form, recording "what the eye cannot retain," Rexer writes.
In Flomen's "Feeder," 2006, the universe randomly printed something very like the surface of the earth. Grainy black and white images unfurl across the gelatin silver print paper like hillocks rolling across a prairie, folding into furrows and shadows.
Charles Lindsay celebrates the heyday of the darkroom, the magical place where negatives turned from black to white and images appeared on paper. Time was, photographers using film manipulated their pictures in chemical baths, darkening, lightening and blurring their images at will. Lindsay allows those old-time chemicals to have their own way with the paper; he simply stands back to see what they'll do.
In his "Carbon (untitled)," 2008, a carbon emulsion has created a fantasy-land of peaks and swirls in black and white; it's an amazing detailed creation—scanned on the computer and printed out as a rich pigment print—that suggests a moonscape or seascape.
Ellen Carey pushes the timeline up to the 1960s, and experiments with the once-popular Polaroid camera. She makes gigantic abstractions that "incorporate chance and chemistry," Rexer writes. In "Pulls with Lifts and Drops," 2006, she has hung eight separate pieces of paper on the wall; four are color prints and four are the black-and-white negatives that made them. All of them are given equal billing as finished artworks. Whether colored or neutral, each has the streaky, slightly ominous look of chemicals oozing and bubbling across a surface.
Italian Penelope Umbrico brings the conversation up to the digital age. For "TVs (From Craigslist)," 2008, Umbrico captures 35 images of television sets from the Web, where, let's face it, most of today's photographic imagery can be found. Umbrico brings the TVs through multiple layers of reality—from the actual machines to the digital pix of them to Web postings to chromogenic prints hanging on a gallery wall. She's framed each one separately and arranged them decorously in a row. In these fourth-generation prints, the TVs' glass screens glisten murkily, offering glimpses of shadow lives; some even reflect the beds and windows of the rooms where the photos were originally shot.
Curator Rexer has defined abstraction in a very broad way, including what he describes as conceptual as well as documentary work. In fact, he declares, all photography is an abstraction. From the beginning, it reduced "three dimensions to two and fram[ed] the world in a highly artificial way. It severed moments from the flux of time ... and turned the formless continuum of lived experience into a view."
Rexer is eloquent and his argument is persuasive; to his credit each of the photographers he's chosen has undertaken something intellectually challenging. But too often aesthetics have been lost in this brainy enterprise, and too many of the images resulting from these experiments are just plain boring.
Roger Newton's untitled work features blurry busts of light, like fireworks, on a murky brown background. Bill Armstrong, in "Mandala #450," and Randy West, "Pretty 13P," exhibit unengaging washes of color on giant sheets of glossy paper. Seth Lambert even takes away the color; his "Nothing on the Bed of an Epson Expression 10000 XL" is nothing more than a shiny black square with white dots.
Not to go all Luddite about it, but dull photographic abstraction is more tedious than the painted variety. At least paintings of circles repeated concentrically and triangles duplicated endlessly have the virtue of surface interest and texture. These photos don't even have that; they're as slick and as unmoving as ads on a magazine page.
So what is McCaw doing in this group? It turns out his work also fits into Rexer's big tent. Some of the photographers are "highly conceptual" (see above), Rexer writes, while others (see McCaw) "could be considered documentary although their subjects, from building façades to light-filled doorways, cannot be readily parsed."
Indeed, it took a lecture by McCaw to illuminate the subject of his "Sunburned." But he steadfastly refused to answer questions of the work's meaning. "I prefer to let viewers make their own conclusions," he told the students.
And to let his shooting suns and burning stars speak for themselves, however elusively.