Infrared Instead

Island Life


If I’m remembering correctly (and who knows for sure anymore), I believe my first experience of infrared art photography was through the work of Minor White, who was a master of the zone system of exposure and development, as well as being a brilliant composer of images. It was the starkness of the blacks and whites that struck me, along with the fact that what was black or white wouldn’t necessarily have been so much so with normal black and white film. Most notable in any infrared photo is that pretty much all foliage appears white, where in a regular black and white rendering it would register in various shades of gray. Similarly, the sky becomes wrong when seen through infrared vision in that, again, instead of various shades of gray, it appears nearly black. Either standing alone on a cloudless day, or in even starker contrast to the presence of any clouds, it is a sky that is unfamiliar and perhaps a bit foreboding to the uninitiated infrared spectator.

Back in the day I did try a little bit of infrared photography, but it involved special film and special development and it seemed more costly than it was worth. A few years back I was asked by Pat Churchill to record her play- ‘Through the Garden Gate’- which was done in the round, or three quarter square as it was in the old Blue Heron performance space. That was challenging enough, but the beginning of the performance proved even more difficult visually as it was done in the dark, with various characters speaking the names of cultivated roses all around the house. This did not read well on the video screen, so I devised an alternative visual- a garden tour around our backyard with photos that I purloined from the dungeons of the internets of all the roses being named in this introduction. So as to be quite different from the rose pictures, I used the infrared function on my video camera and captured the tour in an altered black and white. This took a number of trials to get right as the infrared sensor in the camera is super sensitive and causes the image to be washed out in the light of day. So I had to purchase a set of neutral density filters, use them all stacked in front of each other on the lens and film in a narrow window early in the morning, just as the daybreak light before sunrise was barely filtering through the trees and barely illuminating the garden. I didn’t realize at the time that there was a dense filter specifically designed for infrared usage.

A little less than a year ago I was scanning through an art article aggregator site- Hyperallergic- (don’t ask me the origins of the name) which was recommended by a friend, and it was there that I stumbled upon an article about a Russian photographer who had done a series of photographs of Chernobyl in all of its abandonedness while using a digital camera that had been converted to record in infrared. This was not the classic black and white, nor was it color. Somehow it was a mix of both through an internal conversion of the recording chip and a selection of filters that were attached to the front of the lens which altered the light even before it was recorded inside. This seemed very cool, and seemed like it was flexible enough through filter changes to see and record things in a new way. And so it was that I found the place recommended in the article that did infrared conversions and I sent my oldest dslr (digital single lens reflex) camera off to undergo alterations. I also ordered a couple of different filters to be able to start this visual exploration. As I have found, without filters this conversion renders scenes in washed out normal colors, kind of like old photos that have faded, or like using tungsten film in daylight. With the two filters I have, from one I get almost the classic black and white infrared vision, sometimes with a hint of blue or a slight tendency toward sepia. With the other filter, one is seemingly transported to Mars, with the sky shifting to various shades of red, while foliage still goes white and other colors sometimes respond in surprising ways.