Photography is generally seen as cross-sectional. Most photos are discreet moments in time, snapshots. Art photos are pictorial, and they aspire to be instant painting, or so say our assumptions. Photos also are sources of data that show us what’s beyond the lens. They can reveal things we can’t see with the naked eye.

But photography isn’t limited to being a slice of this or that. It can be a feast of time.

Johanna Moore’s “Diary of a River: Solargraphs of the Kennebec River” is a rare exhibition because it succeeds on so many levels. It is conceptually robust. As photography, the work is painterly and often beautiful. As process art, it is epic.

To make the pictures in “Diary,” Moore built and deployed 120 pinhole cameras along the Kennebec River from Moosehead to the Atlantic over a six-month period between the longest and shortest days of 2014.

A pinhole camera is essentially a box in which a tiny hole acts like a lens and lets in a bit of light that exposes film or light-sensitive paper. Depending on the size of the hole (the “aperture” in camera-speak), the image will require more or less time to achieve a sufficient exposure.

Using black and white photographic paper and some very precise holes drilled in metal tins, Moore produced photographs with exposure times ranging between 63 days and 134 days. And if you look at something for that long, strange things appear. For starters, you see the tilt of the earth as the seasons change. We see bands of bright streaks across the sky as the sun travels lower each day. (We only know the sun is getting lower because Moore’s series began after the summer solstice and ended before the winter solstice.) This kind of long-exposure photography is called solargraphy precisely because it reveals the shifting path of the sun.


Moore’s images are divided between tondos, or circular pictures, and traditionally formatted rectangular images. Some are long, narrow horizontal bands, and that panorama format ironically adds a sense of grandeur and narrative complexity despite essentially being smaller crops of the larger images.

A particularly interesting example of these panorama-style images is a 129-day exposure, “Harris Station Dam, Indian Pond,” a site just below Moosehead Lake. The long, narrow image features a roadway that undulates down from the left, rises through the center and then back down to the right edge like a sine wave flowing against the horizon. The sun lines fire up from the left and leave the image immediately, only to land on the far side of the scene over the dam, which takes on the appearance of a fortress under barrage. The centrifugal distortions and the black-edged circularity of the image add to the sense of martial narrative (with a military weapon-targeting logic reminiscent of the paintings of Dozier Bell).

Generally, however, the circular form of the images (which blur to black on the edges) lends an old-timey feel that harkens to the dreamy and transportive soft-focus pictorialist photography of the Photo-Secession movement associated with Alfred Stieglitz.

“Hinkley 2” (76 days) looks across the water to the sunset point as seen past a large silhouetted tree that acts as a painterly repoussoir. The solar lines in the 10-by-10-inch image seem to shoot up from the horizon like the rays of sunrise, and this reversal adds a satisfying dynamism to the diamond-oriented image.

The most memorable images of “Diary,” however, are the tondos. “Thwings Point Backwater” (116 days), for example, visually spins like a wheel with the sun lines and their reflections bending off to the right, set off from a stand of five slender tree stalks splaying upward. “Dresden” (116 days) has a globe-like celestial feel with the horizon playing the part of the equator and the complex, silhouetted trees on the left acting as the snaking and complicated edges of land masses reaching into the oceans. The series is punctuated by the impressive 30-by-30-inch “The Great Carrying Place” (129 days) fixed by a smaller pine on each side and a larger tree rising up through the middle past the lake-like river and over the far shore into the sky, which is marked by the ethereal blur of a windblown branch at the top. The tondos in particular are ghostly and pensive images, more bittersweet than nostalgic.

In the artist statement for the show, Moore makes insightful comments about how what began as a photography project took on conceptual and process qualities as it shifted from an ambitious idea to a complex reality. Moore lives and works on the Kennebec, and somehow this organic connection feels right. But as she took on making the cameras and mounting the works in place, human elements of process came into focus. Access was often complicated and unpredictable factors like weather and people (mistaking a camera for a geocache site, one couple signed and dated the photo paper) meant not all of the fixed-in-place cameras would yield results.


“Diary” is particularly impressive because the photos in the show are the literal works created inside the pinhole cameras. They are not scans or prints made from negatives. They are artifacts. They are survivors.

When I was a boy growing up in Waterville, the Kennebec was a dying river, poisoned by the chemical foam chunks floating on its surface and so much more we could never see. Now, it is not dangerous to swim the water or eat its fish. Six-foot sturgeon can even be seen breaching on the Kennebec. It is a river returned.

Moore’s “Diary” is truly an inspiring story. It is transformative and deep.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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