1000 Hour Exposures

September 12, 2011

In the work of photographer Michael Chrisman, we find that the desired result is achieved through a slower speed. He produces 1000-hour long exposures, something that makes him explore the limits of the medium. In his interview with Andrew Clark, he discusses the process and aspirations of this very slow experiment.


Mas issue speed 1000 hour exposures 01

Electric. © Michael Chrisman.

AC: The focus of our fall issue is SPEED, and we were intrigued by your 
project, “1000 Hour Exposures.” How long have you been taking 
photographs, and what was the instigation for this project?

MC: I’ve been taking photographs for the better part of my life, sometimes seriously, often not. Time is always a major component with photography, but usually we deal in fractions of a second. Exploring the limits of the medium is part of what drew me to this project.

AC: How would you describe your project? What are you exploring with these
 pictures and this method?

MC: These 1000-hour long exposures represent other metrics, as well. Not only are they a thousand hours, but within the photo might be the memory of half a million cars, thousands of tons of coal, or hundreds of dumpsters of garbage. Time isn’t the only thing being measured in the photos, but the other metrics are obscured by time.

AC: The pinhole camera dates as far back as the 4th century BC and is a
 technology that hasn’t really changed since then. What drew you 
to such a simple technology and process?

MC: The pinhole camera is still the most reliable and cost-effective way of capturing these photos. They are durable, inexpensive to build and maintain, lightweight and require no external power. Its simplicity makes it ideal.

AC: What is your typical method/process for setting up these ‘black boxes’?

MC: With no viewfinder, it can be difficult to frame the shot. I designed the cameras so that their field of view is approximately that of our own vision. Each camera has to be temporarily mounted to something that won’t move for 1000 hours. I found early on that quality tape, and some hard learned lessons on how best to use it, was my best bet.

AC: Do you have any ground rules? Any run-ins with bystanders, owners or enforcement officers?

MC: I can justify mounting my cameras to public or private property temporarily, as long as I don’t damage it in any way. The cameras look suspicious enough that I don’t mount them to bridges or any major infrastructure.

Bystanders are often curious; the ones who ask about what I’m doing are generally pretty excited about the project and I’ll offer to email the final result when it’s all done. The ones who don’t ask are the ones more likely to remove the camera once I leave. As I’ve become more brazen with regard to installing them in more public or more populated areas, more and more cameras have gone missing.

Mas issue speed 1000 hour exposures 02

Harbour. © Michael Chrisman.

AC: Have you refined your technique, construction and/or placement over the course of the project?

MC: The project is always being refined. It is a constant experiment, and with each test taking 1000 hours, a very slow experiment. There were half a dozen prototypes before I constructed the 16 cameras I’m using for the current series. Despite the camera’s simplicity, the photos don’t always turn out. There are many ways for them to fail, and sometimes they simply don’t look very nice.

AC: Today’s culture is driven with the behavior of instantaneous photo
capture, tag, display and share. How does your project fit within this

MC: It is such a slow process that the best thing I can do is forget about the cameras so I don’t obsess about them. I have to mark down the date to retrieve the cameras on a calendar. In the end, though, they are all still just images. The process behind it can deepen the interest in the work, but they still have to stand up on their own visually.

AC: Do you see this project operating in the background of your work for years
 to come?

MS: Certainly. This type of project is much less serious than most of my other photographs. It is a fun, exciting, messy project. The film gets wrinkled, tape melts, and there are so many things outside of my control. It is a far cry from the clean, precise aspects of my typical work; it provides balance.