Michael Chrisman shoots photos of Toronto that span weeks, not fractions of a second. Here’s how he does it.
On January 1, 2011, photographer Michael Chrisman set up a pinhole camera in the Port Lands and pointed it towards downtown Toronto. On December 31, 2011, he took it down. The stunning year-long photo that resulted made it look like an Aurora Borealis had drifted a little too far south, but you probably knew all that already, because the photo was featured on the front page of the Toronto Star on Monday. (It’s also featured above.) Chrisman, a frequent contributor to The Grid, is now selling 365 10″ x 18″ prints of the shot—one copy for each day the photosensitive paper was exposed.
But what makes a good subject for a months-long exposure? What makes a photo succeed, or fail? We asked Chrisman, and got a look at three more ultra-long-exposure pinhole camera shots, including one that didn’t work out as he hoped.
Power lines, shot from near Kipling and Bloor.
The photograph of the skyline shot from the Port Lands wasn’t the first image you’ve made of the city using a custom-made pinhole camera and a months-long exposure. What was your first go at it, and what made you think it’d be a good idea?
I had read about a group of photographers shooting solargraphy, essentially recording the path of sun as it travels through the sky. While photography typically captures a moment, a photo like this can capture time. I thought the same technique could be used to bring to light some of the hidden metrics within photographs. Hundreds of dumpsters worth of garbage, thousands of tons worth of coal fueled electricity traveling along power lines or millions of cars driving along a highway. These metrics are obscured by time but the memory of them is there.
Many of my first test cameras were placed at the same location as the year-long photograph’s camera, with mixed success.
They don’t always work, right?
No, despite their simplicity, a lot can go wrong. To prevent damaging property, I only use tape to mount the cameras, so sometimes the camera’s mounting will fail; with some earlier cameras, water got inside and warped the paper; and sometimes, just like with more straightforward photography, they just aren’t very nice looking.
The DVP meets the Gardiner, shot from near Cherry and Lakeshore.
Is there one particular shot you set up that was really promising, but that didn’t work out? Or where the camera and the mount worked fine, but something changed dramatically in what it was pointing at that you didn’t expect?
I [shot a photo] of the ramp from the DVP to the Gardiner. I had high expectations for that one, but because it was shot during the summer, the sun was too high in the sky to be captured. [It's the photograph just above. It's worth mentioning that when Chrisman set it up this summer, I was with him, helping to scout locations.] I have since reshot it, and have put another camera up in that same spot. But without the trails of the sun, the photos lack that guarantee of sorts that time has passed. (My other version has sun trails.) Similarly, I tried shooting a number of more dense, urban shots and without the trails of the sun showing the passing of time, the photos lack the same impact.
How many shots like this have you tried, total? And how many of those were you happy with?
I’ve probably shot about 30 long exposure photos, ranging from a weekend test to the year-long photo. Happy is vague—I’m happy if the camera worked, but there are really only five or six that I would ever show anybody.
A ship docked in the Port Lands, shot from the same location as the year-long skyline exposure.
How much does each camera cost you to make?
Mine cost me about $20, mainly because I wanted certain requirements met and needed to order a body to meet those requirements. I’m fairly sure most people could build one with things they have lying around their home, minus the paper.
And what about making one of these myself?
Pinhole cameras are extremely basic. It’s their simplicity that makes something like the year-long photograph possible. All you need is a light-tight container, light sensitive paper, and a pinhole.
These are small, non-descript black boxes you’re using to shoot, and you’re strapping them near—or directly onto—bits of civic infrastructure. Do you ever worry about over-zealous police officers or security guards?
I never mount the cameras on any sort of major infrastructure for this exact reason. It’s a pretty harmless project, and I don’t want it to be problematic in any way. I’ve only been stopped by the police once, but it had nothing to do with pinhole photography; they thought what I was photographing was too boring, thus suspicious. They wanted to know why I didn’t take more photos of the CN Tower or heritage buildings.