Monday, 5 June 2017

Biggles shoots infrared photographs over Mount Everest

There has been news coverage recently of the digitisation and publication of films from the archive of the Royal Geographical Society, and BBC reporter Pallab Ghosh narrated a film on the BBC News channel (available during June 2017) about some of them. One such film comes within our purview, being a record of the 1933 Houston Expedition which flew biplanes over the Everest range. They shot movie footage and stills, including some infrared plates provided by Olaf Bloch at Ilford.

In the early 1930s, infrared photography was something of a popular sensation and from about 1932 newspapers regularly printed large IR photographs demonstrating the ability to penetrate atmospheric haze and achieve extremely long distance views.

Everest summit and Chamlang taken from 100 miles away
The published book documenting the expedition, 'First over Everest', goes into some detail about the infrared setup. Plates came from Ilford, and by this time the sensitivity of infrared plates was such as to allow exposures 'as rapid as one-sixtieth' of a second. Taylor, Taylor & Hobson loaned a lens with an aperture of 4.5 and a focal length of 25 inches (635mm). The camera 'was a somewhat rough and ready improvisation made of plywood' which was sourced with the help of The Times newspaper and its legendary art editor Ulric Van den Bogaerde (father of actor Dirk Bogarde). There was, presumably, a quid pro quo because the Times had first publication of images from the expedition. On May 8th 1933, almost exactly a month after the flight, the Times was able to publish the expedition's most famous photograph, showing the summit of Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world and 22 km east of Mount Everest itself, rising above cloud from a distance of over 100 miles.

The camera was very big and heavy and required special mounting in the plane. It was three feet long by a foot square and was placed under the fuselage, hanging in vibration-proof mountings where this aircraft was designed to carry torpedoes, and set up pointing forwards so that the field of view did not include the bottom cylinder of the engine. Plates were changed through a hatchway in the floor of the observer's cockpit. The observer had to hang upside down and put his head and hands through the floor to reach the rear frame of the camera and so access the wooden double half-plate dark slide ... hoping that the wind didn't whip it out of his hands. From this position the camera shutter could be operated. Lining up the shot involved either using the plane's intercom or, if necessary, writing notes. The cue between pilot and observer to take the shot was done using a piece of string. A sharp tug telling to pilot to line up and fly right, with a reverse pull giving the cue to fire the shutter.

The size and weight of the infrared camera were such that it couldn't be fitted to the aircraft for the high altitude flights, so infrared photographs were taken on subsidiary flights, after the main sorties had been completed. There was the added problem that, being outside the fuselage, the camera and lens would have frozen up at the higher altitude. Electric heaters were used for both men and equipment (these were open cockpits) but heating an external camera would have taken too much current.

Even though it doesn't mention the infrared work, the 1934 documentary film of the expedition, which won an Oscar that year, was called 'Wings over Everest' and is well worth a look. It's available to view freely on the BFI web site. There is a definite 'Boys Own' feel about the whole affair, and the BBC described observer Major Latham Valentine Stewart Blacker as being a real life Biggles. While some of the documentary was re-enacted in a typically 1930s way that we now see as being wooden, the real people are featured. But the expedition was filmed as it happened, including aerial footage shot from the cockpit which is a combination of shots from three of the flights.

Two final notes: the expedition was named after Lady Lucy Houston (pronounced How-sten), who provided funds and was quite a character herself (check out the Wikipedia entry on her) and, as the BFI points out, the while thing was inspired by novelist John Buchan.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

More on Wood's slides

I wrote about Professor Wood's lantern slides last time, and I have now found more about them. The slides were marketed by Newton & Co, and I found their 1920 catalogue on line in the Internet Archive.

This is the relevant section (click to enlarge):


So we now know that there are 47 slides and, as you'd expect, not all of them are infrared as they illustrated his talk on both IR and UV photography. So far I haven't been able to track down a set. Does anyone know of one?

Newton's also marketed a set of slides where Wood illustrated sound waves in photographs. This is a link to the catalogue.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Professor Wood's slides

This is a tale I have been waiting to tell for a while.

Regular readers will know that in 1910 Professor Robert Williams Wood, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore USA, published an infrared landscape photograph. The Midwinter Number of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, priced at 35 cents, appeared in February 1910. In this was an article by Wood called A New Departure in Photography, which included an infrared photograph of his summer home in East Hampton. As far as I know this was the first infrared photograph (as distinct from a spectrograph) to be published. Later that year Wood presented his seminal paper on photography by Invisible Rays to the RPS in London and then went off to Italy. While in Italy he took more infrared photographs, many of which were published in the Illustrated London News in June 1911.

I had thought that Wood's actual photographs from this time were lost, despite the set from his RPS lecture being made available for hire from famous slide dealers Newton of Museum Street, London. So the ILN printed versions were the only ones available.

Surprisingly I came across a web page from Chris Fastie. His late father was a contemporary of Wood's at Johns Hopkins and had been given some slides, large format 'lantern' slides, of Wood's infrared photographs. These included some from the Italian trip, but also included one labelled 'First infra-red photograph' which showed another view of the East Hampton house.


The label on the slide of the East Hampton photo (above) is interesting:


So this claims to be the first infrared photograph; different from the first one published. There isn't a date on it unless that is part of the missing text (could that be revealed under infrared light I wonder). Wood's biography refers to the first photograph being of 'distant hazy' mountains taken in 1908 but this would seem to be a label, probably written by Wood himself, contradicting that. Definitive?

You can read a more detailed account on Chris's web page here.

The house was (and apparently still is) on Apaquogue Road and he was famous enough for there to have been a postcard produced, early in the 20th century, showing the 'Home of Prof RW Wood, East Hampton LI'. You can see it here, as part of a book of old postcards of East Hampton by Richard Barons and Isabel Carmichael and from the collection of the East Hampton Historical Society.

At this time I contacted Professor Paul Feldman at Johns Hopkins (he took part in our symposium in London back in 2010) and told him about this discovery. It turns out that Chris Fastie's father Bill was Paul's mentor at JHU and they all know each other. Then, Paul decided to take a look in what he called 'the attic' in the Physics department and found some more slides. These look to be others from the same set but,as they don't include the 'moon cave' image published in the ILN, it is possible there are more out there.

[My thanks to Chris Fastie and Paul Feldman for sending me scans of their discoveries]

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Drone IR

An old colleague of mine, Max Whitby, has shot some infrared footage using a drone and the Near Infrared (NIR) version of the MAPIR Survey 2 camera, shooting HD. He calls the test shoot 'Max's Dream' and this reinforces the way this kind of footage, with lots of Wood effect, has a dreamlike feel.



Max's description of the drone fighting like a cat as he holds it suggests this is something for a skilled operator.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Laurie Klein IR workshop in Providence RI (USA)

One of my favourite infrared photographers is Laurie Klein, author of Infrared Photography: Artistic Techniques for Brilliant Images and Photographing The Female Form with Digital Infrared (both published by Amherst Media). One reason why Laurie's work is so appealing to me is that she studied with Ansel Adams. She's also an educator on the subject and will be giving a two-day workshop at the Providence Center for Photographic Arts on April 22nd and 23rd. More info on the PCPA's web site.

This is a very limited event (only 12 participants) and includes presentations and practical work.

Here's Laurie in action a couple of years ago in this video, posted to YouTube by B&H.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Infrared forensics


Infrared imaging has applications in forensics. Sometimes this is because an infrared image can show variations in an object that are otherwise invisible (which applies to UV as well of course), sometimes because changes in the appearance of something under IR can show up a surface artefact, such as a fingerprint. I'm sure there are more, but I have much to learn in this area.

A recent email alerted me to a somewhat sideways use of IR in forensics, where photographer Robert Schults spent a year documenting work at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. This seems to be basically Bones meets Silent Witness, including a 'body farm', where decomposition is studied. Robert used infrared photography in this project.

Jayme Blaschke, who emailed and works at the university, worked with Shults for more than a year on this project, along with the staff of the center. He tells me that the camera was a Leica converted with an 830nm filter (Jayme's recommendation ... good call).

You can read more in a New York Times blog piece on the project, called Photographing the Science of Death and Decay. Robert Shults' own web site is www.robertshultsphoto.com. Wired have a story with a fascinating set of images as well ... scroll down for the text. (They mention an IR converted Fujiflim X-Pro 1.)

[Image from National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)]