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Photographing the Unseen with the Last Infrared Film

In his new book The Unseen, out recently from Schilt Publishing, Edward Thompson uses some of the last remaining rolls of color infrared film in a wide range of applications: looking for ghosts in an English village, recording the patterns of veins beneath human skin, documenting people and crop damage after a flood in Northern India, photographing paintings of war scenes archived in a military engineering museum. These are among the dozen ways Thompson used 52 dead-stock rolls of Kodak Aerochrome Infrared film, the last he he could find. Faced a limited supply of what was once a common and popular tool for scientific inquiry, Thompson chose his projects carefully. Through his research, he found more than 1,800 documented uses for the film, including applications in aerial photography, forensics, botany, paleontology, graphic arts, spectrography and astronomy. He attempted to recreate a few of these experiments with his last rolls, adding his own studies and subjects that sometimes took him outside the realm of pure science. The result is symbolic exploration of what is usually invisible, whether because the phenomena occurs outside the wavelength of human vision, or because it is unseen for other, less material, reasons.

Thompson describes traveling to India to record the aftermath of flooding on the Brahmaputra River, an event that killed more than a hundred people and displaced millions. He writes in the book, “Even with rolling 24-hour news channels, our news media see the world with a very Western-centric point of view and only cover a handful of stories, repeated throughout the day.” In the images he made there, portraits of men and women in the landscape, the film renders green vegetation as a hot red-magenta color. While the film turns up nothing unusual about the people or their environment, Thompson points out that their story has been unseen by a wider world.

Thompson’s interest in infrared film grew out of one of its less proven scientific uses, as a tool for paranormal investigations, a preoccupation that dates to his childhood and his first attempt at photography. As he writes, “In 1988 I’d tried to photograph the ghosts of the most haunted village of Pluckley in Kent, England. I was seven years old. I tried, failed and grew up.” When he returned to the village 20 years later with infrared film, he again failed to record any spirits. But, he writes, “What started with parapsychology led me towards other more respected fields of science like medicine and astronomy,” and grew into this sprawling project, an experiment in pushing the boundaries of a medium at the edge of extinction.

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