“Beacons Through Time” explores the themes of patience, constancy, and rhythm by capturing US East Coast lighthouses using extreme long exposure solargraphs. Between 2022 and 2023, I visited roughly 25 lighthouses along the coast and rivers, spanning Midcoast Maine to northern Georgia, to place and retrieve nearly 200 cameras.
In this article, I outline the project execution and logistics, construction and placement of the solargraphs, and share some lessons learned and results.
For those who are unfamiliar, solargraphs are cameras with the exposure triangle tilted in the extreme towards long exposure. As pinhole cameras, their aperture hovers between f/150 and f/300, barely sipping any light. Solargraphs typically use darkroom paper instead of film, which has an ISO in the single digits. In combination, these two elements allow exposure times in the months or even years; when placed in situ, solargraphs patiently record the sun’s transit across the sky in long arcs, as well as slowly exposing landscape and foreground elements.
My interest in lighthouse solargraphy started out, oddly enough, as a purely aesthetic interest. I had completed an earlier local solargraph project in the depths of Covid, and my favorite images all had a common element – a tall building or structure juxtaposed against the sun’s leaping arcs. For my next project, I thought, what better subject than lighthouses?!
But the more I thought about it, the more I saw a deep connection between the format and subject. Solargraphs are long-standing and capture a steady, constant daily cycle. In them, you can see cloudy days, storms, even times when the cameras are covered in snow and ice.
Nevertheless, the sun maintains its drumbeat rhythm, a skyward sentinel that provides us with light and life. There’s much in common there with the beacons that line our shores and rivers, many dating back centuries and still proudly standing watch. The name of the project — Beacons Through Time — comes from a standing exhibit at the National Lighthouse Museum in Staten Island, which I visited as part of the research for this project and from which I left with a strong sense of vision and theme.
This project initially started out as a small idea that rapidly grew in scope. I had first envisioned a calendar project in my home state of New Jersey, with the core idea to capture 12 lighthouses and bundle them together in a format that naturally expressed the theme of time.
After a few phone calls for permission, I realized I might have to look outside the state to get 12 representative examples, and I expanded into New York state and down to Virginia.
The next thing I knew, I had secured permission or was underway with permitting up and down most of the East Coast.
Planning & Permission
I’m a stickler for getting permission for my solargraphs, a tendency this project has vindicated. On the one hand, securing permits from state and federal parks, seeking formal approval from local governments, managing insurance, and cold-calling countless private owners might seem daunting — and it is a lot of time and work — but the upsides to this are tremendous.
Apart from ensuring compliance, it’s been a joy connecting with dozens of stewards of these wonderful historic places, and gaining access to a network of enthusiastic supporters who helped me contact further lighthouses up and down the coast. Working formally with sites also helps keep the solargraphs safe and untampered due to buy-in from the host sites and ensuring maintenance activities don’t remove them.
When in doubt, make a phone call.
Designing & Constructing the solargraphs
I built roughly 200 solargraphs to employ in Beacons Through Time, and placed several at each site to ensure at least one successful exposure.
Most solargraphs are homemade, although commercial examples are available on the market. In this project, I used a blend of homemade 3D printed cameras, with a sprinkling of solargraphs made from tall drinks cans and mint tins. In my opinion, the 3D printed designs reign supreme for a few reasons. The optically optimal shape is a half-circular cylinder with a curved film plane and a pinhole placed in the center. This ensures the focal length is horizontally consistent, as it’s basically the radius, reducing distortion at the edges.
3D printing also allows easy custom iterations to shape and design. I worked with my friend Preston, a CAD expert, to dial in my design, including a tailor-made cap, grooves to hold the paper steady, and a small receptacle for desiccant packets as a failsafe against moisture. After trial and error, we opted for PETG plastic, which is easy to use, heat resistant, and waterproof. For anyone interested in experimenting, the STL file is available here.
Solargraph pinholes themselves are also typically homemade. Most practitioners poke or drill holes in thin metal sheets, then sand them down to ensure a smooth and circular hole. I take a different direction, using “single slot aperture grids” designed for laboratory use, which are laser drilled, incredibly precise, and consistent. They are available in practical pinhole sizes (0.2mm, 0.3mm, 0.4mm…). However, they are quite small, roughly the size of a sequin.
To improve their practicality, I sandwich the aperture grids between two small pieces of sticker vinyl and then attach them to the solargraph bodies. After retrieving a few copper-pinhole solargraphs that made their way into this project and seeing the corrosion, I splurged on gold foil pinholes to increase resistance to saline coastal air.
It was a wise choice.
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Pinhole cameras have an optimal pinhole-to-focal-length ratio, which can be easily calculated on a site like MrPinhole. I specifically sized my solargraphs to match the lab standard aperture sizes, landing on 15mm, 32mm, and 65mm focal length bodies as the workhorses for this project.
Paper choice also matters and is interesting; sepia-toned papers become vibrant blue on reversal, and cooler papers become earthy. Modern available papers include those from ILFORD, Agfa, Foma, and Oriental. That said, my favorite are vintage Kodak darkroom papers dating from the 1980s, Kodak Polycontrast RC, Kodak Kodabrome RC, and Kodak Panalure RC, along with Agfa MCP 310 at the top of my list. If you have old paper around, don’t throw it out! It can absolutely still steal the show in solargraph photography.
As a final touch for my 3D-printed pinhole cameras, I did some extra weatherproofing to help them stand up to the wind and waves along the coast. On top of the PETG plastic, gold pinholes, and built-in caps, I coated each 3D-printed body with Flexseal to help improve resistance and wrapped each in heavy-duty duct tape (sometimes camouflaging units to help avoid public tampering). I also glued desiccant packets into the well of some solargraphs to soak up any wayward moisture inside.
Placement & Retrieval
I’m a hobbyist photographer, not a professional, but I think for many of us, our nonartistic professional experiences likely help our artistic pursuits in unexpected ways. I may not have an arts degree, but I’ve managed projects and delivered work product over the years, and managing the logistics of Beacons Through Time felt like a natural extension of those experiences.
After securing permission from my host sites in early 2022, this project had two main phases: one to place and one to retrieve the solargraphs. Each involved a handful of long and wonderful road trips up and down the East Coast. In late 2022 and early 2023, I dedicated most weekends and a week off to travel north to Maine and south to Georgia to place my cameras, crashing on friends’ couches and camping along the way.
Placement is the tricky part of solargraphy — one has to balance location and composition, susceptibility to vandalism, the sun’s Southern arc, and suitable rigid placement structures to secure a good shot. I typically use silicone glue to attach solargraphs, which holds them perfectly steady and is non-toxic, waterproof, and relatively easy to remove when complete.
Timing also matters for placement since the sun’s arc is low in the winter and high in the summer. I knew I wanted to catch a wide range of the year, but the Southeast’s punishing hurricane season further complicated this, limiting my realistic window to a winter-to-summer cycle, and pushing me to place in winter 2022.
To keep tabs, I gave each solargraph a unique ID, complete with an incremental identifying number and shorthand information about the container type & size, the pinhole type, and the paper used in each. Each was tracked in terms of placement location and date, and retrieval date.
Solargraphy is one of those styles where the artist has to be comfortable relinquishing some control of the work. We have a lot of say over the design and placement of the cameras, but beyond that, it’s a months-long wait and collaboration with mother nature, time, and luck. Some host sites provided me with regular updates, but for the most part, I spent Spring 2023 patiently hoping for success.
By summer 2023, it was time to retrieve. I made two trips to New England and one long weeklong journey to Georgia and back, scanner in tow. Solargraph retrieval is easy — cover the pinhole with a piece of tape, wiggle the solargraph off its mount, clean up any adhesive or attachment devices, and finally, log the retrieval date. The real fun begins with scanning!
Solargraphs are typically undeveloped and unfixed, and directly scanned, inverted, and edited. Years of planning, construction, traveling, and waiting culminate in seeing the finished product come to life, with time itself manifesting in a single image and telling stories about what happened during the months of exposure.
A few notable lighthouses exemplified this concept really well in Beacons Through Time. At Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Hampshire, the large storm right before Christmas 2022 destroyed the wooden bridge over the sea right in the middle of my exposure, causing the bridge to be transparent in the final image. At LV-118 Lightship Overfalls — a lightship anchored on a bed of silt in Lewes, DE — the subtle tidal movements under the ship caused some of the sun’s arcs to wiggle and blur at regular intervals throughout the five months of exposure.
For me, this is the magic and essence of solargraph art. With a bit of planning and patience, we can be rewarded with unique and brilliant images that not only look beautiful but tell quiet and subtle stories about what happened during the exposure, whether it’s dramatic events like a Noreaster dashing a bridge on the rocks, or the gentle rhythm of the tides shifting and wriggling the sun’s arcs every few weeks.
The entire project can be viewed at the Beacons Through Time project site. Over the coming months, I’ll be working on prints, a calendar, and hopefully a book, as well as at least one artist talk, so stay tuned!
Many thanks are due to the countless lighthouse museum operators, volunteers, government officials, and private owners who lent me their cooperation and support in Beacons Through Time. I also owe a great deal to my friends and family who joined me on long excursions up and down the coast to place and retrieve these, and a special thank you to Preston Ruff and Matt Lopez, both of whom provided extensive material support on the design & construction of these cameras. Finally, a special shout out to my friends at the NJ Pinhole Club for their consistent support and inspiration in all things art & pinhole.
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