Artists Books
Penny Nii, Totality

The first half of the book contains a short story, Totality, about my experience in viewing the 1994 total eclipse in Bolivia on November 3, 1994. The circular box in the second half of the book contains 15 cards. Each card tells a story, a myth, news or personal stories about total eclipses from various times and cultures. The backs of the cards show paths of total eclipses in the past and in the future. I created the images in the first section including the photos and painting. Those on the cards are borrowed images.


Modern-day worshippers of the sun and the moon, we, two hundred souls strong, traveled many uncomfortable days and hours to be at this place, 14,000 feet above the sea, in the middle of the Altiplano somewhere in the Bolivian Andes. We wait under a clear blue sky in a sprawling field of dry grass and dryer rocks, a field bordered on three sides by distant snow-capped peaks and on the fourth by nothing. For it is at this spot on this particular day, we will witness the moon devour the sun.

Shouts of “First contact!” race across the field. In unison the crowd looks up and watches the moon take its first nibble out of the sun. Then a flurry of activities as adjustments are made on telescopes, videos, and cameras that outnumber the people.  The equipment, lugged from far corners of the world and scattered over the field, represents a vast amount of money, a sum beyond imagining to the handful of descendants of the once proud and wealthy Incas who are finding the visitors just as fascinating as the happenings in the sky.

One hour or so until totality. I decide to leave the photographing of the eclipse to the pros with their powerful lenses and better know-how. With my camera in hand I wander among the natives finding them more interesting than my family, fellow travelers, or the high-tech equipment. In contrast to the animated, pale guests dressed in sweatshirts with myriad ads, jeans of mixed vintage, vests with multiple pockets, and assorted hats, the hosts are dark, placid, dignified in their wide-brimmed felt hats and colorful ponchos. They sit quietly in groups observing alternately the visitors and the sun.  The only anomaly in their classic pose is the white cardboard glasses lined with reflective films resting on their noses – an irresistible sight for a photographer.

A lone woman of indeterminate age sits with a perfect posture on a rock off to the side. The once flawless oval face with high cheek bones is now slightly sunken, showing small wrinkles around her mouth, but her eyes are still dark and clear, her lips full. Her aquiline nose and heavy eyebrows add an air of masculinity and define her character. If we could converse, I would enjoy her company. But the best I can do is to ask with hand signals for permission to photograph her. With no change in expression she acquiesces by turning her head towards the morning sun, arching her neck slightly, and lifting her already straight back. Her face glows under a well-worn beige hat, and the poncho of dark red and purple form a pyramid framing her against the distant white peaks.

I am frustrated by my inability to communicate, to ask her and her friends their thoughts on this celestial event. We are mostly scientists. Many are astronomers and eclipse-chasers who know the physics of the situation and the remarkable coincidence of nature that allows us on earth to see the moon totally block out the sun. The sun’s diameter is 400 times that of the moon, and by sheer chance, the sun is about 400 times farther than the moon, making the two appear from earth to be about the same size. If the moon’s 2160 mile diameter were 161 miles shorter, or if the moon were further away so it appeared smaller, we would never see a total eclipse of the sun. As it is, with the complex, shifting elliptical orbits of the earth and the moon, a total eclipse happen infrrequently.

Nevertheless, every year or two a total eclipse does occur somewhere on earth, about sixty times in a century. The chances of a totality occurring over the same spot on earth in a span of a generation, or even two or three generations, is minute; in fact, for an average town once every 400 years or so. In a culture without writing or imaging, no memory of total eclipse exists except as myths or folklore.  Even today, November 3rd, 1994, for the lone woman and the other Incas, here out in the far-flung reaches of civilization looking funny with their dark cardboard glasses, eclipse must be an apprehensive, if not fearful, event. And they wait in silence, and I blithely go around shooting pictures.

While meandering and passing time, I occasionally peer through my protective glasses to watch the moon take a bigger and bigger bite out of the sun.  The sunlight appears as bright as it was an hour earlier, but the blue of the sky is turning a little darker, and I can feel the mighty sun’s power diminishing.

Totality minus fifteen minutes. Nervous anticipation spreads among the visitors who adjust and readjust their equipment. The sun is now a crescent, and the light noticeably weaker. But this soft light is not like the light of an early morning sun or that of a late afternoon sun that casts long and crisp shadows. Rather it is like a light we might expect millions of years from now when the sun is old and dying, casting feeble mid-day shadows.

I face west joining others looking for the arrival of the moon’s shadow.

Totality minus five minutes. The sun is now a thin crescent. I shiver. The air has turned cold, and the sunlight is almost gone. The day has become as an autumn dusk with a melancholy blue-gray sky, not dark, not light. A gust of wind on a windless day rustles the grass as the cooling air from the mountains rushes down to the plain.  The birds disappear returning to their nests, no doubt feeling a night approaching. The field of two hundred souls is now quiet, whispering, as if sharing the same primal foreboding.

Suddenly, the moon’s dark shadow, like a giant storm, appears on the horizon.  Traveling silently at over fifteen hundred miles an hour, the darkness that began in the Pacific Ocean, that had passed Peru in seven minutes, now advances towards us cutting a dark swath a hundred miles wide.

Totality minus 15 seconds, and the pace picks up. Forsaking the shadow, I look up at the sun and see only a sliver of light. Then the sliver turns to beads of light – a diamond chain flung at the moon in a final plea to keep it from devouring the sun. But it is too late. The moon has covered the entire face of the sun. A few rays of sunlight reflecting off the valleys of the moon create the jewel effect called the Baily’s Beads.

The shadow is now upon us like an omen of doom. We have entered totality, or second contact. Only one bead of the necklace remains, and as if in protest bursts along a lunar arc creating a phenomenon called the Diamond Ring. Loud cheers and hollerings echo through the desolate plain. Too quickly the Ring too is swallowed up.  The moon has devoured the sun. I can see nothing but blackness through the dark lenses, and I quickly take them off.

Where the sun once was is a deep black hole surrounded by a halo of pulsating white light. The ring of luminescence, “the eye of God” according to some, floats in a vast sky washed in lustrous blue-black ink. Nearby, Venus sparkles brightly as if in defiance of the unseemly scene, and a little further away twinkles a weak Jupiter.

The perfectly round hole is mesmerizing in its perfection and its flat blackness.  It is evil incarnate, a stealer of our sun, worthy of all the fears and panic of our ancestors who beheld the sight, and I, too, am filled with an indescribable feeling of dread.

I force my eyes off the hole and look around for my binoculars and catch the orange of a sunset in the horizon. Looking around, I see the sunset all around us, 360 degrees. Standing in the circle of moon’s shadow, the sunny areas beyond the rim appear bathed in the glow of a sunset, or perhaps it’s a sunrise.

We are now in the center of the shadow. The darkness is not the darkness of night, but that of a time of the day when trees lose their colors yet one’s hand is visible, a darkness thirty or forty minutes after sunset. But this darkness at mid-morning is eerie, and the air feels clammy cold in this dry Altiplano.

I return my eyes to the sky through the binoculars. Now I see only the disc and the halo. My rational self kicks in. The black disc is the moon. The surrounding white halo, the corona, is the gaseous upper atmosphere of the sun. The temperature exceeds two million degrees, a result of atomic particles bouncing around at high speed. The corona pulsates in irregular pattern, sometimes creating a long stream of white light as if extending its hand to other stars. Here and there on the rim of the black disc are red tongues of shifting flames like forest fires seen at night from an airplane. But these are no ordinary fires. Called prominence, they are giant clouds of hot gases 93 million miles away, solar gas bent and twisted by the sun’s magnetic field. Through the binoculars, the sun hidden behind the moon looks like an immense ring of fire.

Third contact – a small area of brightness seeps through the black disc.  Totality is over. It lasted less than three minutes, a time that at once seemed an eternity and an instant. The stages of eclipse will repeat itself in reverse order – the Diamond Ring, the Baily’s beads, the crescent sun. The shadow will continue to rush eastward through Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, the Atlantic Ocean, and finally disappear in the Indian Ocean, a path 8,400 miles long traversed in three hours and fifteen minutes.

Here on the Altiplano the eclipse is not over, but the tension, the enthusiasm, the apprehensions of the early stages have flown away with the shadow. We are all still for a moment, each alone and lost in self-reflection. Then, a loud celebratory whooping, and people begin to stir.

My eyes search past the equipment and the eclipse-chasers for the lone woman. I find her among her friends. She sees me looking at her and smiles. Everyone is chattering excitedly as if they had just witnessed the greatest show on earth. They had.

I turn and ask no one in particular, “When and where is the next one?”

— September 19, 1999, Stanford

Penny Nii, Totality

8.5″h x 17.25″w x  3″d.

A short travel story with legends and events related to a total eclipse of the sun.

The first section is an accordion book. The second section is a box structure that holds a circular box made from an oatmeal box.

Allimages were scanned and manipulated in Photoshop; printed on inkjet printer, Cloth cover.


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Penny Nii, The Golden City