March 7: Sun

Date #7March 7: But for chance, photography might have been heliography; ‘drawing with the sun’.

Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1765 of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and John Herschel in 1792, is the opening day of a show by Hiroshi Yamazaki, while Ian Strange continues a pop-up exhibition of new work.

Niépce, French inventor and photographer attempted to fix an image made by light from 1813-1822. When he successfully produced an image on tin Nicéphore Niépce called his invention ‘heliography’ or ‘sun drawing’.

To begin with, he intended using his “heliographic” process for the reproduction of prints. Employing bitumen of Judea, a light-sensitive resist, and exposure to sunlight, Niépce transferred drawings and engravings on to metal plates, which he hoped could then be etched with acid to produce printing plates.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826) Reproduction of an engraving Le Cardinal d’Amboise made by contact on tin plate, 18 x 13,9 cm. Royal Photographic Society (Bath)

In 1824, he put lithographic stones, coated with bitumen, in the back of a camera obscura and recorded that he obtained for the first time ever a fixed image of a landscape. This required an extremely long exposure time, in broad daylight, for a few days. By 1826 he had successfully fixed an image projected by a lens, the first surviving photograph Le Point de vue du Gras, onto pewter. Lack of interest in his invention caused him to leave his three heliographs in Kew when he visited London in 1827 (which is another story), and after his death in 1833 his fundamental contribution to photography was taken and improved by Daguerre who in 1839, launched the daguerreotype, effectively claiming that the invention was his own.

John Herschel An experimental cyanotype of an engraving of a lady with a harp 1842
John Herschel (1842) An experimental cyanotype of an engraving of a lady with a harp

By one of those temporal coincidences upon which this blog is based, today is also the birthdate of John Herschel, English scientist, astronomer, artist, writer, innovator with photographic processes, and friend and mentor to Henry Fox Talbot, the other inventor of photography, and of Julia Margaret Cameron, who was to become one of the first artists of the new medium, who called him “my first Teacher & to [whom] I owe all the first experiences & insights”

Applying a insight about its effect on silver that he had observed in 1819, Herschel promoted the use of hypo (sodium thiosulfate) as the first permanent fixer of the developed photograph. To him we owe the terms “photography”, “positive”, “negative” and “snap-shot”. Herschel developed numerous paper negative processes during 1839, and succeeded in making negatives on glass. Over the next few years he explored hundreds of different processes on paper, including one that uses a solution made of flowers, his 1842 cyanotype (blue-print) process proving the most influential.

John Herschel View from the Hotel Window, Leamington, Warwick, March, 1829 1829, March Camera Lucida drawing
John Herschel (March, 1829) View from the Hotel Window, Leamington, Warwick, camera lucida pencil drawing on paper.

Herschel was a scientist of the photographic processes with a goal of understanding light, and though he supported the aesthetic or practical applications of others, did not regard himself as a photographer. However he had mastered and preferred to use the camera lucida, unlike Talbot who became so frustrated with the instrument that he was forced to invent photography.

One thing has always puzzled me about Niépce’s Le Point de vue du Gras. The rear of his house at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, and the upstairs room from which he made the photograph, faces south-east, toward the path of the sun.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 2.04.17 pm
Google maps view from 1 Place Nicéphore Niépce, 71240 Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, showing the front of Niépce’s house sometime on a summer morning with the sun overhead and in the east.

Why is it that the sun itself was not produced on one of his plates? Maybe it was. Given the lengthy exposures required, it might look something like this…

Hiroshi Yamazaki Heliography03, 1978. Archival pigment print 330×489mm
Hiroshi Yamazaki (1978) Heliography 08. Archival pigment print 330×489mm

Hiroshi Yamazaki also calls the pictures he has been making since 1974 of the passage of the sun ‘heliography’, the name given by Niépce to what we now know as ‘photography’. Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography opens a survey 山崎博 計画と偶然  (Hiroshi Yamasaki: Plan and Coincidence), work spanning 45 years of his career, today at 1-13-3 Mita, In Ebisu Garden Place, Meguro 153-0062, Tokyo Prefecture.


The exhibition is devoted to 200 photos and video of “time and light”, the first exhibition in a public museum of works Hiroshi Yamazaki (*1946) has been making since the end of the 1960s of the track of the sun.


A central figure in Japan’s underground artistic movement ‘Provoke’ during the 60s and 70s, Yamazaki’s artistic impact is far-reaching enough to influence such figures as Hiroshi Sugimoto who also produces serial imagery of the sky and sea. Of heliography he said in 1983 that “a frank desire and sensitivity toward light seem to be expressed in this word. Now that I have adopted Niepce’s appealing designation for titling my photographs, I feel I must also maintain the same earnest enthusiasm for photography as my great predecessor had.”

Y1His first exhibitions, all titled “Observation” were held at Galleria Grafica in Tokyo in 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979. Having been involved in the postwar Provoke group, Yamazaki used a strategy of pacing limits around his photography, in what he describes as his “premeditated crimes”; restricting the subject matter or operating in a predetermined manner. That is what is behind this series.

The simplified methodology opens up the field between planning and chance, since atmospheric conditions and the state of the sea surface and its reflection change over the long exposure. These photographs of extended sun trails with a conventional camera are only made possible by using neutral density filtration that cuts the light coming into the lens to one four-hundredth [of course another solution would be to use a pinhole camera, as Corine Hörmann does in making her sun trails]. In making one sequence of 16mm film of the phenomenon of sun and sea, he allowed the camera to record its own destruction by the intense focus of its image on the shutter and film. Alas, I can remember the devastating effect of leaving my Nikon S3 rangefinder camera lying in the sun with no lens cap; an expensive replacement of the shutter!

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 2.49.51 pm
Hiroshi Yamazaki (1982) Heliography, Day and Year, (printed 2012), chromogenic print.

With Yamazaki we are able to sense the flow of time and the powerful phenomenon of light. The survey has a timely opening date, coinciding with the birth of Niépce…surely that will be a talking point at the opening?

An opposite, pessimistic, spirit has generated a current ‘pop-up’ exhibit SHADOW by Ian Strange, closing this coming Sunday at Viabizzuno lighting store at 13-15 Levey Street, Chippendale, Sydney. He shows a series of five large photographic works and a film work.


Ian Strange (2015) Shadow: Twenty Four Watkins, digital print.

The photographs frame classic Western Australian red brick suburban homes front-on. They have been painted entirely in black in order to generate a shadow that forms an uncanny vacuum against the evening sky, in which even cloud is rendered a dark blue, the hue of the Australian flag. These are Australian emblems; “The symbol of the home, both real and imagined, is very important. I like the idea that it is our first metaphor – how you understand inside and out, of lightness and darkness, the extension of yourself, it becomes a way understanding of the world,” says Strange.

Ian Strange (2015) Shadow: Three Hundred and Nine Wannaroo, digital print.

His intervention with black paint and its extreme contrast is enhanced through the use of powerful lighting on the surrounding houses, side fences and the rear garden. The light appears only on first glance to be that of the sun but then reads as an eerie emanation, a threat to suburban stability, security and contentment that the classic shape of these dwellings symbolise. His ‘pop-up’ exhibition is staged in Chippendale. Once industrial and working-class, the suburb is now being  gentrified with artisanal cafés, galleries and an investment stock of high-density housing.

Ian Strange (2015) Shadow: One Hundred and Ten Watkins, digital print.

The sense of foreboding he generates is no mere imaging on Strange’s part, but is derives from his experience of producing artworks and installations in the suburbs of America in response to the subprime mortgage crisis, and in the residential ‘Red Zone’ of Christchurch following the 2011 earthquake, where 16,000 houses were condemned to demolition. For the latter, Strange filled the houses he used with floods of light, simultaneously exposing deliberately sawn gaping slashes as a reminder of the violence of the quake, and turning whole house into lanterns or beacons.

Shadow is, if you like, a ‘solar opposite’ of Christchurch. This action of ‘blacking out’, this ‘ombriography’, is one which voids these humble villas with a metaphoric  effect mirroring that of catastrophic financial failure or earthquake, or even of urbanisation, events which the Australian suburbanite imagines only in nightmares, but with the niggling sense that such an apocalypse is on the way.

This is the dark side of drawing with the sun.

One thought on “March 7: Sun

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