Diary of a River: Solargraphs of the Kennebec River 2014 Project

What is a Solargraph?

solargraph in Fayette Maine
This six month pinhole exposure tracked the path of the sun from June 21 to December 21, 2013
solargraph of Vaughan's Woods
This is a Six Week Solargraph I took at the Vaughan Homestead Feb-March 2013

Solargraphs are long exposures using a pinhole camera. The exposures can be as short as one day or as long as six months.

Solargraphy got its start from the original idea of artists Pawel Kula, Slawomir Decyk and Diego Lopez Calvin during 2000-2002. In this project some Polish and Spanish photographers launched a call to artists through the internet in order to fix pinhole cameras over different latitudes to compare how  the Sun tracks were different for each participant’s location. They synchronized the start and ending times of the exposures with the solstices and shared the results in a website called SOLARIS PROJECT.


I was first introduced to Solargraphs by the photographer Dennis Stein when we were discussing all the different approaches artists were taking with pinhole photography. I made my first solargraph out in the bog behind my home. The resulting image ended up receiving an Honorable Mention prize for the 2013 Annual Juried Show at the Harlow Gallery in Hallowell, Maine by jurors Bob Keyes and Dan Kany.

Later that year I produced the six month exposure of Fayette (seen above) with a 9th grade student as part of her Science Fair project on pinhole photography.

About the Project

     Denise Froehlich of the Maine Museum of Photographic Arts stopped by the studio one day and saw the Solargraphs. She fell in love with the imagery and asked if I was interested in showing at the Museum.  I did not hesitate to say ”yes!” The project parameters jumped into my mind soon after.

    The Kennebec River has been a source of learning for the nearly 30 years I have returned to live in Maine. I saw my first bald eagle on the Kennebec River in Gardiner. I revel in watching the sturgeon jump in the river each spring. I watch and wait to see if the spring thaw brings  ice jams that will pile up and flood Hallowell and Gardiner.  In the dead of a  frigid snow-less winter I have skated out onto Merrymeeting Bay and grasped how small I was when I stood there in the middle of the mighty river fearfully listening as the ice groaned and cracked as the river moved beneath me. I hike the wilderness around the tributaries leading to the Kennebec observing the swamps and fragile ecosystems of the wetlands which feed it.

   This Solargraph project serves to capture the light of the Kennebec from June to December of 2014. It is my Ode to the fragility of time and place.

The exhibit which results from this project is part of the statewide Year of Photography.  See the other museums that are participating here

Parts of this body of work I produced are on exhibit  along the Kennebec River. After seeing my work projected onto the big screen during my PechaKucha presentation in Portland in February, I hope to project it at other locations along the river the summer of 2015.

The Process

     I made 120 pinhole cameras out of various sized tin cans. I made pinholes for each group of cameras according to the focal length of the tin can and loaded each camera with photographic paper.

tools I used to build my pinhole cameras
Various sized needles, metric ruler, and a jeweler’s loop. The tools I used to make all the pinholes for the various sized cameras
tin boxes transformed into pinhole cameras
Here is a group of 30 tin cans I turned into pinhole cameras

I began the project at the Summer Solstice. I owe a debt of gratitude to Kimberly Christopher at  Three Rivers Whitewater in the Forks, Maine. She put me in contact with Brookfield Energy  to get permission to install the cameras at Harris Station Dam on Indian Pond, the main source for the Kennebec River which comes out of Moosehead Lake, and she let us stay in one of the cabins at the Campground!

Pinhole Cameras installed at Indian Pond
Brookfield Energy was gracious enough to allow me to duct tape three pinhole cameras to the light poles heading out to Harris Station Dam

The spring rains showed how powerful a river can be:

pinhole 4 x 5 Moxie Falls
The amazing power of spring flow at Moxie Falls captured with my 4 x 5 pinhole camera
pinhole camera image of Wyman Dam
Black & White Pinhole 4 x 5 image.  Wyman Dam

There are great swathes of cornfields and hay fields on both sides of the river once you get below Bingham. It was good to see Backyard Farms back in production in Madison. Here is a Press Herald story on what went wrong when they had to close up from the whitefly infestation!

backyard farms greenhouse
Agriculture is a major industry along the Kennebec River. Conventional and organic farmers from Caratunk to Phippsburg share the rich floodplains. Agricultural runoff is a major contributor to the water quality of the river. Pesticides from conventional farms seem to have overtaken the paper mills as a leading contributor to pollution.

We stopped at the North American Indian Historic Site along Father Rasle Road in Madison. This is some information I gathered from the announcement for the annual Wabanaki gathering there:

      The annual memorial ceremony takes place at the site where the historical Abenaki village of Norridgewock once stood. Prior to an attack by the British army on August 23, 1724, this central community had existed in basically the same location for thousands of years. Many North American Indians from across the region can trace their heritage back to communities like Norridgewock, historical places where their ancestors had lived in relative peace and prosperity before the colonists changed the landscape of the region. The Norridgewock memorial represents more than the attack, massacre and forced relocation of one group of Abenaki or Wabanaki people. Norridgewock represents the combined experiences of all of our ancestors, who survived or who perished in the struggle to maintain their lands, their culture and their way of living. 

Norridgewock is also representative of the vast network of relations that Abenaki and Wabanaki people are interwoven with and connected to. Today, for instance, families from the Abenaki, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribal nations trace their ancestral roots back to Norridgewock. Remembering Norridgewock is also important today, because it offers all of us an opportunity to come together, as allies, friends and extended family, to strengthen our network of relations and to build a future for all of our children and people.

We acknowledge that there are many, many places like Norridgewock where Native people were displaced, and perished. We also acknowledge that many of the stories haven’t been told, and that in some cases, the ancestors haven’t been properly remembered or grieved for. Norridgewock is a beginning for this process.

I posted that information with gratitude to Gedakina  and to the Wabanaki people of Maine

Penobscot Nation Memorial Rest Area
On the Father Rasle Road in Madison you will find this public area nestled among the trees. It is an area of rich history for the Penobscot Nation

I would like to thank the Vaughan Homestead, the Harlow Gallery, and the Kennebec Land Trust for kindness and permissions in accessing property and letting me place cameras on their land!

The sweet town of Hallowell, Maine along the Kennebec
The sweet town of Hallowell, Maine along the Kennebec

I’d like to thank the Chop Point School  and the Phippsburg Land Trust for letting us install cameras on their land!

My dog Benny inserted to show scale
We were able to bring our dogs along for some of the outings we made when installing the cameras. Here we are along Merrymeeting Bay
view to the Bath Bridge
Looking toward Bath from the old Ferry Landing in Woolwich
Fort Popham and Phippsburg
The view of Fort Popham and Phippsburg at the mouth of the Kennebec River

The project started at the Summer Solstice.  It took from mid-June to mid-August to set them all out. And then it took from mid-october to mid-November to retrieve them. Out of 120 cameras I lost 38 to vandalism or the weather. Out of the 82 cameras, I ended up with about 45 successful images. I posted some of the solargraphs in the Photography section of my website.

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