A photograph discovered inside a beer can at the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory in England may be the longest exposure image ever taken.
In August 2012, while finishing her MA Fine Art degree at the university, Regina Valkenborgh lined a beer can with photographic paper and placed it on a telescope at the observatory. She was attempting to use the can as a makeshift pinhole camera — a light-proof box with a small aperture known as a “camera obscura.”
Nearly a decade later, in September of this year, the photograph was discovered by the observatory’s Principal Technical Officer, David Campbell. The delicate, abstracted image depicts 2,953 arced trails of the sun rising and falling between summer and winter during a period of eight years and one month. The dome of Bayfordbury’s oldest telescope can be seen to the left in the photograph; a gantry constructed halfway through the exposure period is visible from the center to the right.
“It was a stroke of luck that the picture was left untouched, to be saved by David after all these years,” Valkenborgh said. “I had tried this technique a couple of times at the Observatory before, but the photographs were often ruined by moisture and the photographic paper curled up. I hadn’t intended to capture an exposure for this length of time and to my surprise, it had survived. It could be one of, if not the, longest exposures in existence.”
Long exposure photography is a relic from the medium’s early days, when cameras had slow shutter speeds, and plates were exposed to light for an extended period of time. Though technological advancements in the 1920s eventually led to shortened exposure times, long exposure photography has found a dedicated following in contemporary practices, yielding ethereal, otherworldly images.
According to the University of Hertfordshire, the German artist Michael Wesely is thought to hold the current record for the longest exposure photograph, captured over four years and eight months.
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