University Discovers Photo With 8-Year-Long Exposure That Was Taken With a Beer Can

Longest Exposure Image Eight-Year Shutter Speed Pinhole Camera

“Days in the Sun” by Regina Valkenborgh (Photo: Regina Valkenborgh / University of Hertfordshire)

The London 2012 Summer Olympics had its closing ceremonies in August 2012. Just one week after the athletes dispersed, a masters student in fine arts began a project at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. Regina Valkenborgh crafted a pinhole camera out of an aluminum beer can, duct tape, and light-sensitive photographic paper. Affixed facing skyward on the side of the university's Bayfordbury Observatory, the camera was forgotten—weathering the elements for eight years and one month. David Campbell—the observatory's Principal Technical officer—finally got around to removing the camera this fall. Inside, he discovered the longest-exposure image ever captured, showing eight years' worth of solar paths across the sky.

As a Fine Art student, Valkenborgh was interested in using old technologies to capture images. She experimented with pinhole cameras, using the technique known as camera obscura. Her beer-can camera is an extreme example of this technique. A small hole in a light-tight box (or can) allows the light of the outside world to pass through. The image of the outside world is inverted and projected into the darkened space. Early photographers learned to capture this optical phenomenon by placing light-sensitive film behind a small pinhole, just as Valkenborgh did. While many pinhole cameras require exposure lengths of several seconds or more, the beer-can camera's eight-year exposure—entitled Days in the Sun—is the longest on record.

Over the eight years that the camera remained affixed to the observatory, the photographic paper inside captured what is known as a solargraph, showing the passing of the sun in arcs across the sky. The highest arc is the Summer Solstice; the lowest, the Winter Solstice. Some days likely left little impression upon the paper due to cloudy weather. Passing people or trees are not visible, only the sun's bright light. It is possible that the paper recorded a full 2,953 trails of the sun, according the the University's statement.

Valkenborgh's camera was never meant to have an eight-year exposure. Luckily, the moveable observatory carrying it returned to the exact same orientation every day. The camera recorded the view from where it sat over a length of time equivalent to 4% of the entire history of photography, according to a tweet from the observatory. In doing so, the camera made history itself for its unlikely (and unplanned) survival. While Valkenborgh's solar image stands as the longest known exposure of an image, other photographers experimenting with pinhole cameras hope to set new records. In 2015, Jonathon Keats placed his Millennium Cameras—with 1,000-year shutter speeds—to watch over Lake Tahoe for what seems like an impossible eternity. For many, the fascination and challenge of pinhole cameras and long-exposure photography is capturing a changing world constantly in motion.

Masters student Regina Valkenborgh crafted a pinhole camera in 2012 out of an aluminum beer can, duct tape, and light-sensitive photographic paper. She faced it skyward on the side of the University of Hertfordshire's Bayfordbury Observatory, where it was forgotten till this year.

“Days in the Sun” is perhaps the longest-exposure photo on record, recording up to 2,953 arcs of the sun's path across the sky.

h/t: [Vice, PetaPixel]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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