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The Longest Photographic Exposures in History

A friend sent me a link to this photo here today. I have seen it a few times before and it was always (WRONGLY) claimed as being the longest exposure in photographic history. It was taken with a pinhole camera over a period of 6 months by a photographer called Justin Quinnell. It shows the traces of the sun over Bristol's suspension bridge during that half year period. Which is impressive and beautiful. BUT IT IS NOT THE LONGEST EXPOSURE.

The German photography artist Michael Wesely has created even longer exposures. Using large format cameras (4x5 inches) he captured the light of his objects for up to 3 years in monochrome or colour.

In 2001 he was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to use his unique technique to record the re-development of their building. He set up eight cameras in four different corners and photographed the destruction and re-building of the MoMa until 2004 - leaving the shutter open for up to 34 months!


The sun traces in the sky give the images a beautiful, painting-like feeling. To me it is very surreal to see the movement of the sun - or more precisely the movement of the earth around the sun in such a way.

The photo below was taken over almost 14 months at the Leipziger Platz in Berlin - which at the time together with the Potsdamer Platz formed one of the biggest construction sites in the world.

I find incredible that you can actually see the passing of time. The older parts of the building that were exposed the longest appear darker and clearer. While the newer parts seem more ghost like. More than 2 years took it Michael to create this incredible time incapsulation at the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin (below).

Wesely claims that he could do exposures almost indefinitely - up to 40 years! Now that's something I would love to see one day.

Here is another image he created. It is a one-year exposure of an office which he took from 29 July 1996 to 29 July 1997.

Here is another one of his mesmerising creations. I don't know exactly how long he exposed it, but I think it is totally beautiful too. The life and death of a bunch of flowers.

 If you are interested in his photographs you can buy his book he published a while ago.

OPEN SHUTTER by Michael Wesely


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Reader Comments (97)

this is haunting

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFinn

I also remember seeing that picture that wrongly claimed to be the longest exposure. Thank you for setting this straight, because I don't even like that picture.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterfred

gorgeous. love them.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered Maegan

OH MY GOD. This is a cause to celebrate; inspiration for the rest of us to step up our game (in anything and everything we do).

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Samways

Sarah - I am glad you see it in the exact same ways as me. It is so inspiring to see someone going through such an incredible amount of effort to get one photo. That's why it was so important for me to give Michael the credit he deserves. :)

July 20, 2010 | Registered Commenteritchy i

But is this really the same thing? The first photo (with it's 6 month exposure) is made with a pinhole camera, which naturally has no shutter and thus the pinhole is open the whole time (6 month).
Wheras it says here:

- in continuous one-frame exposures. ">
Made by continuous one frame-exposures"... Does that mean the film was exposed continously or continously exposures where made, (let's say once a day, for a second, for 2 years, or what ever)?
I really can't tell by the wording, but i have the feeling the sharpness of the images suggests the later.
I would be glad, if someone could enlighten me on this.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike Fall

Hi Mike,

yes it is the same technique. Each image is the result of an ongoing exposure of the same piece of film which was held in a pin hole camera.

He basically opened the shutter (hole) and then left it open for up to 3 years. The light fell for the whole time onto the same frame of the film. That's why you can see the long bow-stripes of the sun - as it "moved" across the sky.

I have slightly altered my wording in the main text - to make sure it is a bit clearer from now on.

Thanks for reading! :)

July 21, 2010 | Registered Commenteritchy i

this is awesome...loved the berlin pic...too good

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrashmi

Hi Mike:

Excellent results from an extremely "old technology". How'bout that? Imagine, someone actually using film and real talent to create art that will live forever. Take that, digital!
Before you get your dander up...I am not a digital hater. I am a person who appreciates those who have studied the craft of creating images and the art of painting with, and controlling light to the point that the rest of us can only dream that we may someday create an image that even is close. All of these images herein were created by true masters. Gentlemen, I salute you.

I still feel though that you are opening a debate with "longest exposure" VS " longest continuous exposure" The original piece of the Bristol Bridge by Justin Quinnel is beautiful AND one of the longest "continuous exposures" ever recorded. You can see the true tracking of the sun as evidence of his leaving the pinhole open constantly and continuously. On the other hand the images by Michael Wisely could be more in line with the photographic technique (movie technique), of pixilation, although the difference is that the images are recorded on one single film plane. I suppose that by definition this makes them the true "longest exposures" ....
Back in the "old days" of KODACHROME ( c'mon Kodak, bring it back!!!!), images of fireworks were made with a tripod mounted camera and covering and uncovering the lenscap with each burst.

Either way these are some of the finest long exposures I have ever laid eyes on, and thanks very much for sharing them. Thanks also for the opportunity to post a comment.

Take Care, Tim

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Very nice post, i like the focus and general direction of the post, great insight.


July 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSwoop

The library one is my favorite.

3 years? Amazing.

July 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdevans00

Wow, that's a truly wonderful work of art. Thanks for posting this.

July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Matte

Pure Awesomeness.

July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

This is THE idea of the century ! How to use one of the oldest human invention to capture "time traveling" and effects.
Lumiere Brothers would have trust and love such work !

July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMcGivrer

You might like to check out for more on this way of image making

July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKieran

I'm absolutely in love with a couple of these images. I so miss using film, and trying simple but fun experiments with light and the camera. I forget about the art of it sometimes when I get caught up in timelines and the ease of digital cameras. These are great and a great inspiration!

Astonishing what a human can do....Love it love it..

July 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commentericy lazare

that's incredible, simply incredible

July 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersir jorge

I appreciate good photography as much as the next person and I don't mean to burst any bubbles, but seriously... all these people did was take off a lenscap and walk away for months or years at a time. When it came time to process the film, they wound up with something kinda cool.

I'm definitely not anti-analog. I work in digital on a daily basis and a lot of times, it's a flawless bore. Perhaps it's the size of the images here, but I'm not seeing enough detail to make me think "Wow... these are really important and artful." The art in this process seems to me to be that of any other photo... finding the ideal location for good lighting and composition. The whole "time travel" aspect could have been gotten by setting up a digital camera on a tripod, shooting an image daily and piecing it all together in Photoshop (which has been done to death).

I get the whole rediscovered tech thing and the appeal of the analog process, but I guess I'm just not that impressed with the end result. Maybe I'm missing something, so if you can enlighten me, please do... I want to be as amazed as others commenting here seem to be, but I'm just not.

July 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermarc

I remember seeing pictures taken by Mr. Wesely in cinemas, exposure time being through the whole movie. Those had a really eerie quality, the only light coming from the screen and, strangely, no people to see in the seats.
Unfortunately, his website doesn't have pictures anymore... :(

July 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWhoNose

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