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