The Unseen: An Atlas of Infrared Plates
by Edward Thompson
Schilt Publishing, 2016
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
It’s difficult for us, today, to imagine the wonder that people felt encountering photographs for the first time in the mid 19th century. In many ways early photographs looked like the pictures with which people were already familiar; the translation of the world, as it’s visually experienced, to a flat perspectival picture was nothing new. But the way in which the picture was fixed - the materials, textures and sheens of images committed to small metal plates, or to paper, or to glass; the ways that detail appeared seamless and fine – seemed marvelous. Photography was initially anticipated to advance astronomy, archaeology, and other fields that required accurate and detailed visual transcription; the resulting documents looked photographic- smooth tones, clean lines, endless detail, a strangeness seen and felt in its peculiar forms. We learned to see photographically, so that eventually we came to believe that photographs emulate sight.
The infrared photography projects in Edward Thompson’s The Unseen: An Atlas of Infrared Plates evoke what I imagine to be a similarly uncanny feeling, where we recognize that infrared photographs have a “correctly” photographic feel, and yet they depart even further from our own experience of vision than conventional photographs. Thompson’s infrared photographs show us veins in vampiric nude bodies, lips orange and eyes black, and alien landscapes where greenery is red, skies are slate blue, and stone is white. The familiar is clearly visible before us, but surely not in a way that we’ve ever seen, and too weird to be a special effect. This contradiction produces a feeling of unease; to what kind of story can such images belong?
In The Unseen Thompson brings together several projects that visualize the invisible. Among the chapters of the book: Thompson’s return to the village of Pluckley, where, as a child, he had sought to photograph ghosts; London, seen from the air, in reference to the current use of infrared to track sources of air pollution; an area in the state of Assam, in Northern India, recovering from heavy flooding, (perhaps Thompson’s only misstep, in which people dealing with a natural disaster are abstracted and distanced by color to the point that we neither know nor care what they are doing). Infrared photographs of a collection of landscape paintings made in former British Colonies by the Royal Engineers allude to the use of infrared in documenting artworks, which occasionally reveal secrets buried beneath the visible layer of paint. (A famous example of this is the discovery of slaughtered children painted over in Brueghel’s Massacre of the Innocents). The firmament of stars; naked men and women; human organs; a glacial cave in Iceland: all are photographed with infrared film, and all reveal stories that we tell ourselves about the role of image-making as a means of verification, and of visibility as evidence. The most striking story, with which Thompson ends the book, is a series of images made at Chernobyl, where the infrared film does not record invisible radioactivity, but evokes the unseen as a very real threat.
The book itself is positioned as a fantastic object. Its cover is designed in an early 20th century art deco style, and the layout and design reference scientific publishing throughout, though shifting modes help the reader to see the sections of the book as part of a larger narrative. Through the course of the book photographs from different projects come loose and become interspersed with others, paper stock changes, the texts that precede early chapters appear to go missing and we are, in a confusing moment, confronted with photographs of beekeepers.
The Unseen can be read as a work of visual science fiction, a critique of the Anthropocene, this era in which humans are the most significant influences on geologic changes on Earth. By the end of the book the beekeepers have been addressed, and anthropocenic change emerges as one of the larger themes of the book. Apiaries and melting glaciers explore the effects that humans have had on biology and geology. The beekeepers look like astronauts on a foreign planet and the naked humans look like aliens. The nebulae and our internal organs provide a framing context. We humans are stranger than we know, and so is our world, when its unseen realities are revealed. Thompson’s photography speculates a kind of time travel: the present is seen from an imagined past as an imagined future. The antiquarian appearance of the book with its Jules Verne epigram from Journey to the Centre of the Earth suggests that this is all something we might have imagined a hundred years ago as some horrific future. And yet, here we are.
There’s another narrative in The Unseen, which Thompson describes in the book’s introduction, his race to complete these projects before running out of both film and time. When Thompson’s interest in infrared photography began in 2010, color infrared film production had just ended. He purchased a limited amount of film from a source in Germany who was cutting large rolls of infrared film produced for aerial photography into sizes that would fit commercial cameras. When this film ran out, he looked to eBay, where dead stock was being sold, and found other photographers to buy film from. Scarcity was measured first in the number of rolls remaining, and later, in the number of frames. Completing his projects, he was limited not only by his scant supply of film, but also by its age; this running down of available infrared film is a more dramatic version of the story of the end of commercial film. The tones of the Breidamerkurjokull glacier went blue in Thompson’s photographs, partly because recording the invisible inevitably produces unexpected results, but also possibly because of the age of the film stock. This is salvage photography that seeks to preserve not only subjects that are fated to disappear, but also the technology with which the world is made visible.