Total Solar Eclipse
The last of the cardboard glasses were going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Touts had been flogging them for twenty bucks apiece on street corners. One local school had ordered thousands of pairs in advance only to find they were fakes. People were driving across the country to obscure gas stations in their searches, and even descending on hardware stores to buy themselves welding goggles.
I put my welding goggles back on the shelf and sighed quietly. The man beside me had explained they were no good. ‘You need shade 14 to look directly at the sun. These won’t cut it. Really, it’s the eclipse glasses or nothing. You’ll probably still find a few pairs in gas stations.’
All of this was in a last gasp attempt to see ‘The Great American Eclipse’. And clearly I wasn’t alone. Most shops had posted hastily written notes in windows stating they were sold out to subdue incessant enquiries. In the days when these glasses were plentiful they went for a fews bucks each. Now they were like golden tickets to the chocolate factory.
The thing is, I hadn’t even realised a total solar eclipse was imminent until a few days before the event. I’d arrived in Portland, Oregon, to find the accommodation either booked up or available at ridiculously inflated prices. Which in itself was a stroke of luck. It meant that I’d shrugged off the situation and stayed in my camper van, ultimately free to travel to a better vantage point, with a healthier bank balance. In the time since, I’d overheard talk of the imminent celestial event and had taken to Google.
For the first time since 1918, residents and visitors of America alike could witness a total solar eclipse that would be visible right across the country, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. Fourteen states of the USA from west to east would be plunged into darkness for more than two minutes. The path of totality would cover just 16% of the United States. Sixteen percent! Having spent the previous five months driving across the United States I appreciated the significance of that figure. And I happened to find myself a mere two hours from said path. By chance. Just days before. I was on the West Coast too, which was due to experience the phenomenon first.
After much hasty research, deliberation and last minute spontaneity, I decided to head to Salem, the State Capitol of Oregon. Firstly, it was the State Capitol and I imagined they might make a decent occasion of it. Secondly, it was nearby and I wouldn’t be venturing onto private land at risk of being shot. And thirdly, the first 1,000 people to arrive at the Capitol Building at 9:00am would receive a free pair of those extremely scarce cardboard glasses.
I arrived early, sustenance at hand, camera batteries charged, cameras at the ready, and joined the queue. By my estimation I would be well within the allocation. There were a few moments of panic when several people in front of me convinced the staff to give them extras for their ‘friends’, but eventually I was face to face with a person that placed an actual pair of cardboard glasses in my hands. For free.
The square in front of the Capitol Building was buzzing with anticipation. People had set themselves up in considerate rows of camping chairs, blankets, and cameras on tripods. Music ebbed and flowed from different corners on the wind. Proceedings were narrated over loudspeaker.
It’s a delicate balance to strike between documenting an event like this and just taking it all in. When it’s a commission, it’s simple. You just get on with the job of taking pictures. But for pleasure, you have to be careful not to do the same thing. Viewing the whole event through a camera would be a mistake. This was one of those very special moments in life that don’t come along very often, so I made sure to take time for myself and not just the photographs. It’s something I try to remember wherever I am, and more often than not, it means you take better pictures. If you’re more attuned to your surroundings you can actually see what makes them special.
And everyone seemed to appreciate just how special this occasion was. We were treated to a clear blue sky on the day, not a cloud in sight. Even the birds could feel something strange was happening, flocking with a nervous energy, their song ringing out around the square.
With the show imminent, a local astronomer took to the loudspeaker to begin the countdown. It was with child-like fascination that we watched the sun gradually being blotted out by the moon, looking like the clipped paper dots from a hole-punch. Bit by bit, through our cardboard glasses, a crisp circular silhouette crept across the face of the sun until we were just moments away from totality. The next few minutes were profoundly powerful.
The daylight dipped with a slow but purposeful change to an eerie twilight. A hush descended over the crowd. The temperature drop was distinct. The air felt fresh. People’s shadows took on a strange halo of light, as if viewed through a clear body of rippling water.
These changes played out in a distorted reality, like the gravity of the moon and the sun aligning had pinched the passage of time itself. All of this developed with the smoothness of a slowly rotated dimmer-switch in a matter of minutes.
The anticipation of the crowd was electric. Static seemed to buzz all around us, from one person to the next, connecting each individual into a single mass. There was an incredible moment of equality, or perhaps neutrality, where nothing else mattered and we were all simply people, sharing this once in a lifetime experience together.
As that experience approached, the sun flared from behind the moon with a dazzling last-gasp before totality. The excitement levels reverberated around me. The crowd clapped and cheered. The tension rose. And then the light finally clicked off.
Only it didn’t. Not completely. It was darker, sure, and the temperature had certainly dropped several degrees more. Not quite day turning to night, but unlike any light I have ever experienced. The darkness was aglow with a strange luminance.
We removed our glasses, although it still felt as though we were peering through those obsidian-black lenses in this daytime darkness. Free from the cardboard frames we looked up into the sky and saw that totality was spectacular. A shimmering ring of bluish-white light from the sun. A perfect circle of the moon’s silhouette within it.
You see these sorts of visions in fantastical science fiction movies on the big screen. This one was playing out right before our eyes and with all of our senses.
Hairs stood up as I felt the wave of excitement wash over me. There was a sensation of heady weightlessness. People weren’t just cheering now, they were actually howling. Like a wolf howls at a full moon from a hilltop. This overwhelming primal desire took hold of me too, and much to my surprise, I needed to whoop and howl myself. And I did. The release was palpable.
The otherworldly moment lingered for a time. People squeezed each other’s hands as they watched, heads rested on shoulders, kids fizzed with enthusiasm (kids and adults alike), and cameras snapped. We all did our utmost to absorb the experience.
And then it was over. The sun reappeared in a flourish, flaring brightly, and everyone stumbled from their fixation, as if released from hypnosis by a trigger word. The heat and light of the day returned. And everyone attempted to hold on to that wonderful moment for as long as possible, as it slowly began to fall away like a dream after waking.
It wasn’t long before everything started to feel normal again. Service was resumed far too quickly. But at least we still had those cardboard glasses.
I should point out that I wasn’t prepared for this event. I hadn’t practised my solar or night photography. I didn’t have a solar filter or a stack of neutral density filters with me. I don’t shoot with a tripod. But as it turns out, you can just whack your cardboard eclipse glasses on the end of your lens and snap away, with some surprisingly effective results.
But please don’t attempt to photograph or look at an eclipse without the correct eye protection. Donald Trump did, against the advice of everyone around him, so need I say more?
I was using a FujiFilm X-T2 to document the event, which is a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one. Regardless I wouldn’t recommend photographing the sun without the proper filters in place. Use cardboard eclipse glasses at your own risk.
You can see this project in full and in large format in the Series section of my website: Total Solar Eclipse. If you enjoyed this post or have any questions, please like, share or leave a comment below (no signup required), thank you.