tom wilkinson
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The Clay Camera - a timed based installation

The Clay Camera took its first clay photgraph at Trinity Buoy Wharf last year. It also captured the image of Faraday’s Experimental Lighthouse, beginning the long exposure started on the Summer Solstice, when the sun is at its highest.It will be here until the fired traces reach near the bottom of the lighthouse - around late November 2023.

The Clay Camera

This is what is actually taking place - a lens focuses the disc of the sun onto a plate of dried clay. Each afternoon as the sun goes overhead the intense heat (about 500 degrees C) fires a mark. But as the sun goes behind the lighthouse no mark is left until it emerges from the other side. Each day the sun is slightly lower in the sky so the new mark is parallel. It’s a bit like the old fax machine where the image builds up in parallel lines. When a cloud passes in front of the sun a gap is left in the fired trace, but as long as there’s enough marks made a recognisable image of the building will be eventually formed. Below shows the first mark made on the Summer Solstice 2022.

Clay Camera first day

The Clay

The London clay was dug from the ground very nearby where the camera is sited. This is extremely important to the project to use indigenous clay, as indigenous as possible. It was excavated from a deep hole made by a construction site on Orchard Place. I was amazed just hope pure the clay was - needing little refining - just picking out a few stones and organic matter. Once wedged (thrown on a hard slab, squashed and kneaded to remove air bubbles) it could be rolled out. The drying process was laborious as I wanted the plate to be a flat as possible so this process took weeks of careful extracting the moisture very slowly - each day replacing sheets of newspaper.

Clay Camera September Clay Camera vitrification
Above left taken on September 13th 2022 - photo by Helen Armitage. Right showing black marks of vitrification
during the unprecedented heatwave in August )

The Image

The focused sun light transforms the clay from muddy grey to salmon pink - the delicate trace is minerals in the clay metamorphosed! Using the sun and clay to make an image is taking photography back to its most primal of levels - had the stone-age cave dweller aliens he\she could of captured images of their world.

Like a normal camera and your eye, the image is projected onto a silicone chip or your retina upside down and back to front. This is a draw-back, however as the lighthouse is such a recognisable building even its silhouette, inverted, should be a recognisable image of this iconic building. Prints will be made from the clay plate with the image corrected. Below - installating the camera and box.

The Lighthouse

I wanted to photograph this subject because of its special significance to science. Never used for guiding ships it was where Michael Faraday developed lenses, lighting but mainly techniques of ventilation to be used in all the Trinity lighthouses.


I hope to continue this project taking photographs, sometimes referred to as solargraphs, all around the country using clay from as near as possible to the subject. Please get in touch if you’d like to commission me or have the project as a residency. The main criteria is that the sun/subject/camera position relationship be viable. I’d like to to capture the image other buildings of significance or just simply of a tree.

I’d like to give special thanks to Richard Cripps at Urban Space, Alison Cooke for her technical expertise in caly and the Trinity Buoy Wharf Trust for funding the project.

To see the installation (On site until November/December 2022):
Trinity Buoy Wharf
64 Orchard Place,
Leamouth Peninsula
London, E14 0JW

Canary Wharf Jubilee Line. Exit from station - Bow Creek


Clay Camera - debut installation at the British Ceramic Biennial

This is the Clay Camera (aka Sun Firing) on the last day of the installation at the 2019 British Ceramic Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent. The rain-cover is removed showing an image clearly on the clay plate of the roof structure at the iconic Spode Works. Streaking accross are the sun-traces fired into the surface, but not where the roof structure is, leaving a negative, or silhouette of the subject.

This is the first, actual recognisable, image taken with my clay camera and its debut installation! This homemade camera has
a 10" diameter lens. The iris cotrols, as in all cameras, the light coming in but in this case an overexposure can cause the clay's
surface to pit with tiny explosions.

Clay Camera at British Ceramic Biennial

Below is the clay plate the correct way up. It measures 32cm square and shows the silhouette of the roof structure.
Interestingly the action of the heat from the Sun has caused the salts to come to the surface. The black marks show that the
intense heat has vitrified the minerals in the clay, turning it to glass.The image of the roof is somewhat blurred this is because
of its nearness to the camera. the lens is focused to infinity so a subject further away will make a sharper image - note that the
image, like in a normal film camera, is in reverse.

Clay plate at British Ceramic Biennial

The roof structure and ventilators at Spode Works. The first subject for a long duration exposure

September 2019

The new camera had its live debut at the British Ceramic Biennial in Stoke-On-Trent 7th September until 13th October
2019. For the duration the camera is recording an image of the Spode Works superstructure and ventilators, made up of traces
fired into a London Clay plate. (similar to the test version below showing trees tops from my workshop window).

Sun Firing in shed
The new camera installed at the Spode Works for the duration of the BCB 2019

Sun camera
The new camera locked off and ready to record the Sun passes over the 37 days of the Biennial

For help with this whole project I'd like to specially thank the following:

Alison Cooke for rekindling my entusiasm for the project and supplying me with Thames Tideway clay.
If it wasn't for her encouragment I doubt if I'd have taken the project to this next step.

Barney Hare-Duke for letting me do this at the BCB and supplying the shed.
Rhiannon Ewing-Davies, the BCB Creative Director, for her patience, support and organisation.

Sun Firing
Sixteen days of Sun traces made in August 17 - 31 2019 from my workshop window iclearly showing the outline of the
treetops being recorded

Early experiments

The rudimentary camera you see here captures an image of the Sun, not onto film or a silicon chip, but onto a clay plate.
As the Earth and Sun perform their celestial dance, a trace is recorded onto its surface. The temperature of the Sun’s disc
image is about 500°C, which is hot enough to actually fire the clay. The plate is made from 100% London clay, which I dug
up near my home in Kensal Green. When fired it transforms from the muddy ochre into a beautiful salmon pink.

This year I achieved what I didn't know was possible - to actually capture an actual image, the outline of the branch (see bleow).
It really is primal photography. I want to make a better camera that will allow me larger images and photograph an entire tree.
I have been accepted to present the work at this year's British Ceramics Biennial. This is a great honour for someone who
has never use clay as medium for their art, however I haven't managed yet to convince the Art Council for funding but thanks
to those friends who contributed to buying the very expensive lens for the new camera.

Sun Firing camera

To obtain the image of a whole tree will be technically challenging, to say the least, as the image is formed as the sun passes
behind, creating a silhouette. It will take three - four weeks to make an image consisting of about thirty traces, so the equipment
has to be very precise as the camera has to be left without being moved for this total period. And the whole set-up has to be
under shelter to prevent the clay returning to mud, so not an easy task at all.

Above: Taken over one week of the heatwave, last summer

Early tests

sun trace on clay

The first plate is pure London clay. Alison Cooke, the experimental ceramicist, kindly provided me with advice and clay
which was excavated 200 meters down during the construction of Tideway, London’s future sewer. I’ve excavated my
own clay near where I live and it is fascinating to see the colour variation of clays from different seams.

I've had a recent and very exciting breakthrough ( below) a new experiment has worked whereby the camera is capable
of actually forming an image of an object. This is something that I envisaged years ago but didn’t think possible. By accident
I left the lens cap off the camera, as the sun is low now I’d stopped taking photos. But when I looked at the plate I could see
the distinct outline of the tree tops - over 3 days a definite image has formed. I know know that the outline of any large object
can be captured on the clay plate. This is how it would work - as the Sun sinks lower each day it scans a parallel trace and
slowly, over a period of 2-3 weeks would build up an image in silhouette on the London clay plate. It could be a whole tree or
building, infact any large object.

Here is the evidence - I hope you can comprehend the image - the second photo is with the scene obscured in order to show
the fired trace clearer.