Monday, 5 September 2016

Edward Thompson: The Unseen

This hardback book isn't your usual photographic monograph. For a start it's just over 260 pages long and then every image is taken using some of the last-remaining rolls of Kodak's colour infrared film. As the back-cover blurb says, this is the swan song of a particular kind of film, and of the particular kinds of images it was destined to take.

Ed Thompson is a documentary photographer, and for the past few years he has been exploring his photographic fascination with the different view of the world that this film provides. He has chosen some of the hundreds of potential applications to produce a series of smaller projects which, taken together, make up this book. Superficially, this may lead you into thinking that the book is disjointed, jumping between anatomical specimens, dystopian landscapes, portraits, an operating theatre, the sky at night and even images of paintings. Follow the interstitial text, however, and it will become clear.

The photographs look beneath the surface of the subjects, in some cases literally (that is, the medical poses and an Icelandic glacier). Infrared photography, both monochromatic and false-colour, has been used for remote sensing of plant health in agriculture, haze-penetration, imaging veins and other things just below the skin, and layers of artworks below their 'skin'. Whereas once infrared was thought of as a branch of astronomy - the 'new astronomy' as it was called - now it dominates the field. Ed's astronomical photographs are perhaps the weakest in the set but they deserve to be included ... and the Orion Nebula always amazes.

I think the book is called an atlas because the twelve chapters document an exploration, although you will find no diagrams showing oceans and mountains. You may, however, find a dragon or two, in the shape of photographs from the dead zone surrounding the Chernobyl power station. For me, these are the most poignant images: using one form of radiation that we can't see to suggest the other, more dangerous, invisible radiation all around.

If I have a technical quibble, it's that building a book from images where the predominant tone is saturated red is a printer's nightmare. Print lives in the land of CMYK, not RGB. I started off thinking some of the images were a bit dull, but they actually need quite a lot of light to bring them to life. Persevere, and you will be rewarded.

I've collected quite a few books of infrared photography and The Unseen is part of a tiny group specialising in false-colour infrared. It definitely deserves its place in a photographic library and in the history of the medium: whatever your reason for liking infrared photography, there will be images here to amaze you.

The Unseen: Atlas of Infrared Plates by Edward Thompson
Published by Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam
266 pages
ISBN 9789053308639

Friday, 5 August 2016

Havelock Williams: infrared pioneer in New Zealand

The 1930s turned out to be something of a golden age for infrared photography, as photographers could now buy infrared plates 'off the shelf' rather than having to sensitise themselves. This would also have made exposure more predictable. For example, UK newspapers, notably the Times, published many such photographs between around 1932 and 1938.

The interest was almost exclusively around the haze penetrating properties, allowing for long-distance photography, especially from aircraft. For this reason infrared photographs showing the Everest range were some of the images taken on the 1933 Houston Everest Aerial Expedition.

Among the photographers availing themselves of the potential of infrared photography was New Zealand photographer Havelock Williams. At this time he was living and working in Timaru in South Island and his daughter, Diana Rhodes, tells me "Infra-red photography was in his output around 1934, on large format glass plates of the South Island Scenery". It is unclear what stock (or stocks) he used and even whether he sensitised the plates himself. Diana has a box labelled Ilford Hyper-Chomatic Films, where her father has written 'Infra Red Albury' (if I can decode correctly), but I don't even know whether this was a box for plates or for prints of some of his IR images.

Diana has sent me a few of Havelock Williams's infrared photos from the 1930s. They are as spectacular as you'd expect, with the combination of IR's characteristic tones and New Zealand's scenery. Here are two of them ...

From Caroline Bay

Lake Tekapo, Takapo House and Bridge

Diana collated and edited his work to produce a book, With my Camera for Company, if you'd like to explore his life and work further. The Amazon UK link isn't as helpful as it might be, but if you're in New Zealand (or don't mind air mail) then this link is better.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Simon Marsden tribute movie on the way

At first I didn't quite 'get' the aesthetic of the late Sir Simon Marsden's infrared photographs. Based on my own experience of using the legendary Kodak HIE infrared 35mm film, I found them rather gloomy. Eventually I clicked and began to appreciate the atmospheric effects he was achieving. His use of strong back-lighting, dramatic angles and his expert printing soon made me realise that he, and the grainy halation of HIE, were made for each other.

Ironically, as many of you know, that grainy halation was a result of the construction of the film rather than the infrared light itself. However, the film was constructed like that because of the infrared light: the lack of an anti-reflection coating and base fogging being because Kodak couldn't find a way to make them work across all the wavelengths to which the film was sensitive.

When I came to work on the Infrared 2010 celebrations, I was delighted with how helpful and communicative Simon was. This was true of almost all the photographers I approached but Simon was the only one who was actually specialising in infrared photography. His Moydrum Castle photo from 1978 became our poster image.

He died suddenly in 2012. He died on my birthday. I was 61, he was only 63. We had communicated, chatted even, using email. I had never spoken with him or met him. An opportunity missed.

The Irish film maker Jason Figgis has been planning a film about Simon for at least a year—entitled Simon Marsden: A Life in Pictures—with the enthusiastic support of Simon's widow Cassie. Jason's blog about the project had its first posts back last July and has been quiet so far this year but I know the project is now ramping up. It will explore not just Simon's work but also the technical background and inspirations behind it.

Stay tuned, as they say.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Ed Thompson Kickstarts Book

Ed Thompson is running a Kickstarter campaign (is that what you call them?) for his book 'The Unseen'. If you're interested in Ed's thoughtful takes on false-colour infrared photography then you should have a look.

It's highly unlikely anyone will produce any more colour infrared film, so there's something rather wistful about looking through this book, knowing that the images represent the last ones to be captured using this idiosyncratic stock. It started life during the second world war as a means of detecting camouflage and was used extensively for remote sensing and medical photography. The Unseen takes a sideways look at the historic uses for the film with subjects like Chernobyl, bees and even a haunted village (Simon Marsden would have been proud).

The book is expected in June. My full disclosure is that I've helped Ed in a small way with some of the text.


Sunday, 17 April 2016

Laurie Klein Artistic Techniques Book

Following on rapidly from her excellent book Photographing the Female Form with Digital Infrared, Laurie Klein has joined forces with her son Kyle for a more general coverage of infrared photography.

Basically (and simplifying somewhat) Kyle discusses the subject from a technical perspective while Laurie discusses the art and technique. As I noted in the review for Female Form, Laurie studied with Ansel Adams and his fingerprints can occasionally be found in her work. This book even mentions the Zone system, in the context of using the camera's histogram display. For infrared photography, where the captured images often have a restricted palette, the histogram is even more useful than in conventional photography.

There's a lot to glean from this book. Personally I find more to learn in Laurie's contributions but that's not to denigrate what Kyle wrote, just where I'm coming from with my research into the subject. What I really like is that post-processing, which is undoubtedly an essential part of digital IR, is placed in a reasonable perspective. The book leads you through the workflow of making the image with the camera and then adjusting it to match the vision. I'm particularly interested in the section on emulating the old Kodak film halation and will be exploring that before long.

Infrared Photography: Artistic Techniques for Brilliant Images by Laurie Klein and Kyle Klein is published at $37.95 by Amherst Media. I note that Amherst have really upped their game with the printing in their recent books: no complaints on that score. The format fits the usual Amherst US-Letter size, perfect bound.

I've also been sent a copy of Karen Dórame's Mastering Infrared Photography by Amherst, which I'll be looking at before long.