Latest BAM exhibit shines light on photography basics

Chris McCaw/Courtesy
New to the Berkeley Art Museum, 'Sun Works' bares photography's fundamentals.

In today’s age of point-and-shoot digital photography, it is easy to disregard the art form’s intimate reliance on light. Free from light meters, f-stops, and ISOs, few understand photography as the capture and manipulation of light, it’s fundamental form. “Sun Works,” a photography exhibit that opened at The Berkeley Art Museum last Wednesday, reminds viewers of that profound relationship through the creation of a complex ode to our primary light source: the sun.

Sarah Charlesworth’s “Arc of Total Eclipse, February 26, 1979” is one of two works that make up the exhibit. To create it, Charlesworth captured an eclipse that took place on February 16, 1979 by photographing the front pages of local newspapers from across the Pacific Northwest that featured photographs of the event. The actual size of newspapers, the front pages neatly line the walls of the gallery, each displaying the paper’s masthead in its fancy font and a picture of the eclipse. By whiting out all other text, Charlesworth compiles a simple yet haunting collection of eye-like black circles surrounded by glowing rings of white, against black skies that float on the page in white space. Completely colorless, the newspapers starkly encapsulate the moment’s light in layers of black and white frames.

Those frames urge the viewer to contemplate the number of photographic steps that went into the re-creation of that single light source. The eclipse was captured with a camera, developed onto film, printed onto a newspaper, photographed and developed again, then printed once more. The many layers of filters beg the question of how many re-creations of a light source can be made with the result still remaining an authentic documentation.

This riddle is made more explicit by the contrast between Charlesworth’s piece and the exhibit’s other piece, “Sunburned GSP #488 (Sunset/sunrise, Galbraith Lake, Alaska)” by Chris McCaw. Using self-made view cameras, McCaw created a large four-panel long exposure of the sun crossing the sky directly onto photographic paper. By doing so, he deconstructs the photographic process by eliminating the reproduction of light and making his original light source the sole creator of the image. The result is a silky wash of grays creating a dim mountain-scape, and one perfect arc across all four panels that represents the journey of the sun that day. Being a negative itself, the image is darkest where the sun shone on it for the longest, resulting in a clear depiction of sunrise and sunset through variance of hue in the arc. At one end, the paper is even burnt through, making more apparent the collapsed layers of the photographic process.

“Sun Works” subtly yet gracefully evokes consideration about the nature of light and its role in photography and ultimately perception. Even the placement of McCaw’s piece, alone in a white room, urges the viewer to analogize the white of the walls with the white spice framing the pictures on each of Charlesworth’s front pages, effectively bringing the viewer into the piece.

A step back into the context of the museum can create for the viewer an even more comprehensive journey through the nature of light. With Silke Otto-Knapp’s “A light in the moon,” displaying muted moon-lit imagery in a gallery before “Sun Works” and Richard Misrach’s photographs of the Oakland-Berkeley Fire aftermath currently in the following gallery, a walk through BAM can take you from the silvery sheen of the moon to the destructive flames of fire, stitched together with an ode to the sun.