Viewing A Solar Eclipse Safely through an Artist’s Eye

Posted on Tue, August 8 2017

Black and white artistic photo of someone with a box over their head.

Solar Eclipse by Jim Leisy, Van Dyke Brown print, 2011 | Copyright: Estate of Jim Leisy, not to be used without permission, please email for more information. 

In this Van Dyke Brown photographic print from the from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum art collection, Jim Leisy (1950 – 2014) shows us one way to safely view a solar eclipse.  On first glance we see an unidentified person wandering aimlessly in a dreamy atmosphere with a box over their head. As the title Solar Eclipse suggests, the cosmic observer is actually catching a glimpse of the fleeting phenomenon with a pinhole projector.

Solar Eclipse is from a series of 16 photographs titled “Amateur Physics,” which focused on breaking down complex scientific or mathematical theories with wit and beautiful imagery. Other subjects include the big bang theory, Newton’s apple, and infinity. Leisy describes his work as “a visual ramble from the literal to the metaphysical, with an occasional dash of humor.” And as shown in Solar Eclipse the subject is not merely observing the universe, but is enveloped within it.

A pinhole projector such as the one in Solar Eclipse can be made from a cardboard box and a few supplies from home. The way it works is this: The light from the Sun comes through a pinhole made on the box and shows up inside the darkened box as an image. It’s pretty much the same way that light comes through a camera lens and is projected onto the film or digital camera sensor to make an image. But please note, using a camera without a specialized safe solar filter is not a safe way to view an eclipse because you are looking at the Sun directly through the optical viewfinder and can injure your eyes.

The photographs from the “Amateur Physics” series are made using the Sun instead of a darkroom enlarger (a specialized transparency projector used to produce photographic prints) for the final prints. Leisy combines the 19th century Van Dyke Brown printing method with 21st century digital processes for his results. The making of an image begins with photographing a subject in either an indoor or outdoor staged set. The photographic file is then enhanced with a computer, and a digital negative is printed with an inkjet printer. A separate piece of 100 percent cotton rag watercolor paper is coated with the Van Dyke Brown solution (a mixture of ferric ammonium citrate, tartaric acid, silver nitrate, and distilled water) and then set to dry. The digital negative is then pressed, “sandwiched” with the Van Dyke Brown treated paper into a spring-loaded glass frame or contact frame. The contact frame is placed outdoors to capture ultra-violet (UV) light from the sky. The image is then burned into the paper by the UV light. And voila! The magic happens.  This natural exposure method is known as Sun printing.

And now back to the Sun and safe methods to view a solar eclipse. How will you safely view the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017? It is imperative that you protect your eyes during a solar eclipse. Looking directly into the Sun can burn your retinas. Even sunglasses are not safe for viewing.

While supplies last, the Museum is offering its visitors safe eclipse glasses at no charge. They can be picked up at the Museum’s Welcome Centers, both at the Museum in Washington, DC, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. On August 21, you can observe the partial eclipse with National Air and Space Museum solar telescopes at both locations of the Museum, as well as at the National Archives and National Zoo, and participate in special activities to prepare for the eclipse. Can’t make it to the Museum? Tune in to our website for live broadcasts from the path of totality.

See these easy instructions to make a pinhole projector.
Or see more from Jim Leisy’s “Amateur Physics” series.