The Longest Photographic Exposures in History
Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 12:18PM
itchy i

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


Update on Monday, September 6, 2010 at 10:05PM by Registered Commenteritchy i



The tremendous popularity of this article with more than half a million (!) clicks in one month inspired me to contact the artist Michael Wesely himself.

I felt there were questions by readers which I couldn't answer correctly without talking to Michael. And I also wanted to tell him how much his worked was loved and how many people saw it as an inspiration for their own works and lives.

From the many comments I learned, that many of you were astonished by the beauty of the images but  also by the technical aspects of their making. The fact that the light fell for up to 3 years onto the same negative strip without over-exposing seemed just too unbelievable.

But Michael confirmed that he indeed created continuous, uninterrupted exposures over those long periods of time. This can be seen through the long light lines in the sky, which were created by the movement of the sun across the sky during those many months.

Michael Wesely, Palast der Republik, Berlin (28.6.2006 - 19.12.2008), © Michael Wesely,

Michael wanted to highlight that he also sees those lines as an indicator for something else. He told me that "the lines in the sky put our existence, us, our planet into context with the Dance of the Universe, which coexists on an entirely different time scale [from us]."

His works were truly a hard and long labour of love. The so called reciprocity failure or Schwarzschild effect means one can't simply pre-calculate extreme long exposures.

It took Michael months and months of experimenting to make sure the negatives weren't going to be over-exposed. He said, if you'd planned to expose for a year you would have to do an exposure of 6 months, and 3 months beforehand and so on. You would have to collect a lot of data and find solutions for a lot of detail problems. 

Michael started with pin-hole cameras (1988-1994) but then moved on to use large format cameras (4x5 inches) as these would provide images with a much higher amount of details.

And this is what he was after - details. The technical challenge was never his main driving force. His goal was to capture information that told about our daily lives: the forgetting, remembering, regenerating and the transitions - a general focus point of Michael's works.

© Michael Wesely

As you can tell from the images certain details are hardly visible and only become 'alive' when you get close and spend some time discovering them - something that is only really possible when the images are exhibited as large prints in a gallery.

I really loved what Michael pointed out about the creation of the images. During the long exposure times the pictures constantly destroyed themselves, by putting layers and layers of new details on top each other.

Just when one detail had burned into the negative it was erased or overshadowed by another detail. In his eyes this constant change and destruction is something that really stands for the state of our society. "The moment is fading, all that remaines is the permanent overlapping of movements of all kinds, political or personal. The technologies of our times fuel this fire of restless 'Online-Existence'. One day computers won't have an on- or off-button anymore. We will always be online."

I agree with Michael. We live in a world of constant transition - where even buildings are not constructed to last forever but to be easily destructable when not needed anymore. Or where consumer products are desgined to destroy themselves after 2 years so you have to buy a new one. I have even seen a whole country - the country I was born in - East Germany (German Democratic Republic) - vanish in a blink of an eye. All it stood for, all that a whole generation loved or hated was gone within one year.

It shows that the only thing constant in our times seems to be: Change. Which I think - can be seen as a bad thing - when one misses a save haven where one can anchor his or her heart and soul in stormy times. Or when mankind doesn't take the time needed to learn from the now to avoid mistakes in the future.

But there is also something great about this constant change and transition. It seems to follow something deeply universal - something so powerful that nobody can stop it. Something that makes life so interesting and unpredictable - and very often worth living.

When looking at Michael's work I can find all these elements frozen into images that will never seize to amaze me.

If you are interested in his works then check out his new book TIME WORKS which was just  published by Schirmer/Mosel Verlag. It is an eclectic mix of Michael's creations from 1992 until now.

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