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This Photographer Captures the World in Infrared

Artist Ed Thompson first used infrared photography to try to capture ghosts, now he's turning it to other invisible phenomena.

Documentary photographer Ed Thompson wants to rejig perception with his infrared photography. "We see a visible wavelength of light between 400 and 700 nanometers. But when I shoot with infrared film, I use a filter to block off the visible wave length, so you're literally looking at above 700 nm to 1000 nm. That's why it's so amazing—it reveals the invisible," he told me over the phone.

Thompson's exhibition ​The Unseen, which is on show at the Four Corners Gallery in London until April 18, captures everything from the radioactive Red Forest of Chernobyl, the plight of refugees in India, and a "haunted" village in Kent. "These red landscapes are very reminiscent of H G Wells' The War of the Worlds. It's very sci-fiesque and dystopian," he said.

Exploring themes such as sustainability, pollution and human rights, Thompson asserted that he liked to "subvert the original uses" of infrared film through his practice.

A vein captured using infrared. Image: Ed Thompson

Infrared photography has come a long way since British astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel discovered infrared radiation in 1800. In 1910, American physicist and inventor Robert W Wood produced the first known set of infrared l​andscape photography on sensitised photographic plates. These images appeared in the Royal Photographic Society Journal's October 1910 edition. 

Yet infrared film was only commercialised in the 1930s, when manufacturers such as Kodak and Ilford developed emu​l​sions sensitive to infrared light on a larger scale. It has had many uses, with botanists exploring the cellular material in plants, astronomers studying stars, and musicians such as Jimi Hendrix using infrared photographs for album covers in the 1960s. In the medical sphere, infrared radiation photography has been used by the likes of medical photographer Henry ​Lo​u Gibson, who deployed it to detect breast cancer.

A site in Chernobyl's exclusion zone. The Red Forest (2012). Image: Ed Thompson

While normal photography captures visible light, infrared photography captures light that's invisible to the human eye. As infrared light has wavelengths of 700 nm and above, it extends beyond the red edge of the visible spectrum. Infrared film captures both normal and infrared light, yet once a photographer uses a filter, only infrared light passes through the lens. Depending on the filter used by the photographer, vegetati​on will appear either white or red.

Thompson explained that his own interest in infrared film was sparked in 2011, while he was investigating the best ways of documenting Pluckley—allegedly the world's most haunted village in Kent, a county in the Southeast of England.

The "haunted" village. The Village (2011) Image: Ed Thompson

"I could've just photographed [Pluckley] on a conceptual level, and shown the presence of absence by photographing empty streets," he said. Instead, Thompson turned to Google, and found that "some people out there believe that you can photograph ghosts on a different visual spectrum." Inspired by this practice, he got a few rolls of infrared film and started shooting.

What started as an experiment quickly turned into a full-blown research and art project, with Thompson poring over historical texts on infrared photography at the British Library. "Infrared photography has been used to document pollution, in forestry to document the health of plants, and in medical photography, so it's nothing new," he said.

The Thames River in London. The City: Studies in Pollution (2014). Image: Ed Thompson

Thompson shoots with Kodak's Aerochrome III film, which ​stopped being made in 2009. He set out with 30 rolls. "There are only ten shots on a roll. So I could only take 60 pictures when I went to Chernobyl, and 60 pictures when I went to India," he said. "I'm viewing the world through the infrared spectrum of light. I'm shooting blind, so I have to just go for it. That's extremely difficult when you've got so few shots to take."

Aside from the challenges of 'shooting blind', he noted that Infrared film is also notoriously difficult to maintain. "If you leave it at room temperature for a week, it's destroyed," he said. "God knows how hot it was in India. I was doing everything possible to keep the film cool," said Thompson, who didn't even know if his films from India would develop properly.

One of Thompson's images from India. The Flood (2012). Image: Ed Thompson

While Thompson read up on photographic techniques used by medics and scientists, he places importance on social meanings and aesthetics over scientific inquiry. "My work is aspiring to scientific photographs, but the scientists taking those photographs were scientists, and they'll have had different desires for their work to me. I'm a documentary photographer, so my aesthetic and social impulses are stronger."

For Thompson, who gets a kick out of playing with the way we perceive the world, infrared photography lets him reveal a setting where all is not what it seems. "If we just viewed the world a little differently, it would be radically altered. If our visual spectrum of light was changed slightly, then we'd see in a very different way."