After seeing the Richard Mosse exhibition in the RHA gallery in February, the bright pinks and surreal blues of this wartime photography have mesmerised me. I was truly blown away by this magical world and part of me hoped this land of bubble gum fields actually existed. Unfortunately but not surprisingly it does not. This distortion of colour was all down to the film that Mosse used inside his camera. The now discontinued Kodak Aerochrome. I wanted to research this visual technology because it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Nowadays you can photoshop and manipulate any photograph any way you like so I assumed Mosse had just done that in his work, to find out this was all down to his film, a film in short supply in todays world is quite fascinating so I based my blog around that. I discuss the infrared process, its original use as a method of wartime surveillance and then its use in popular culture right up to todays world.
What is Kodak Aerochrome film?
Originally used for government surveillance the Kodak aerochrome film, now discontinued, is an infrared sensitive, false colour reversal film featuring medium resolving power and fine grain. In plain English it is a specific type of film that distorts natural colour schemes. The colour infrared transparency films have three sensitized layers that, because of the way the dyes are coupled to these layers, changes colours. It replaces infrared as red, red as green, and green as blue. All three layers are sensitive to blue so the film must be used with a yellow filter, since this will block blue light but allow the remaining colours to reach the film.
Why was it created?
Aerochrome was designed in collaboration with the US military in the early 1940’s. Developed during World War II for aerial military surveillance. Infrared is invisible to the naked human eye so it was the films job was to pick out camouflage from surrounding vegetation. The health of foliage can be determined from the relative strengths of green and infrared light reflected; this shows in colour infrared as a shift from red (healthy) towards magenta (unhealthy). Healthy vegetation shows up as pink, and non-plant material shows up as darker blues. It works because plants absorb blue and red wavelengths of light to fuel photosynthesis. They are green to our eyes because they reflect green light away from their leaves. But they also reflect infrared light, we just can’t see it with the naked eye. A tank painted like the forest won’t reflect infrared light in the same way a real tree would making it easy to track enemies who would be otherwise hidden by camouflage.
How did it become part of Pop Culture?
During the late 1960’s the Psychedelic movement exploded across America due to the accessibility of mind altering drugs. The word “psychedelic” (coined by British psychologist Humphrey Osmond) means “mind manifesting”. A style of psychedelic artwork and music derived from the experience of altered consciousness that uses highly distorted and surreal visuals, sound effects and bright colours to evoke and convey the artists experience when using such drugs. Musicians sought to capture these visuals for their album artwork and soon found the Kodak Aerochrome film perfect. The distorted, surreal use of colour, altering the perspective of the photographs was ideal and soon it was the must have visual technology for album artwork. Musicians such as The Hollies and Frank Zappa used infrared film to convey their psychedelic world. Soon it became to represent much more than just a state of mind. Concert posters, album covers, lightshows, murals, comic books, underground newspapers and more reflected not only the kaleidoscopically swirling patterns of LSD hallucinations, but also revolutionary political, social and spiritual sentiments inspired by insights derived from these psychedelic states of consciousness.
Infrared psychedelic photography had a huge impact on album sleeve art. For example if you look at Jimi Hendrix’ original cover for his 1967 album “Are You Experienced” you see a forgettable piece of art. The cover art’s combination of dull green and brown tones, juxtaposed with the jocular nature of the subject’s pose, created a weak visual impression.
Chris Stamp, the designer, acknowledged this admitting “It’s not a great cover at all. Hopefully, we made up for that in all the other covers.” When the album was to be released in the US the band decided to reshoot and design the work again, knowing the importance of memorable album art. Graphic design Karl Ferris was commissioned to do the work, after listening to the album his first impression of the music was that it was “so far out that it seemed to come from outer space”, which inspired him to develop a backstory about a “group travelling through space in a Biosphere on their way to bring their unworldly space music to earth.” With this concept in mind he shot with Kodak Aerochrome film and a fish eye lens to encapsulate the psychedelic theme. Then mounted on a bright yellow background with hot pink lettering the album sleeve became one of the most recognisable of the decade. It truly showed the progression of colour infrared technology from war use to popular culture.
Who uses it now?
The piece that inspired me to write this blog was called “Enclave” by photographer Richard Mosse. In 2013, Mosse represented Ireland in the Venice Biennale with Enclave, an immersive six-channel video installation that utilized 16mm infrared film. The piece is an attempt, as Mosse explains on CNN.com, to bring “two counter-worlds into collision: art’s potential to represent narratives so painful that they exist beyond language, and photography’s capacity to document specific tragedies and communicate them to the world.” The Kodak aerochrome film paints the Congo in a vivid colour scheme. The result being the lush Congolese rainforest rendered into a beautifully surreal landscape of pinks and reds.
Mosse’s practice resides at the interface between documentary journalism and contemporary art. For centuries, the Congo has compelled and defied the Western imagination, a place devastated by war and violence by Congolese rebels. I managed to go see Mosse speak at this year’s OFFSET and his passion for his craft blew me away. His fascination with capturing the tragedy yet beautiful landscape is perfectly encapsulated in Enclave. He discussed how he had learned Kodak were discontinuing their aerochrome colour infrared film so he decided to use it while he had the chance. This resulted in his most famous and awe inspiring work to date. Mosse said in an interview with The British Journal of Photography “I wanted to export this technology to a harder situation, to up-end the generic conventions of calcified mass-media narratives and challenge the way we’re allowed to represent this forgotten conflict… I wanted to confront this military reconnaissance technology, to use it reflexively in order to question the ways in which war photography is constructed.” With the collaboration of cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer Ben Frost, Mosse has created a highly immersive six-screen multimedia installation that attacks all the senses. From sweeping panoramic shoots, punctuated with crashes and native hymns the work leaves the viewer entranced.During a period of two years Mosse, Tweeten, and Frost inserted themselves as journalists within armed groups, which fight nomadically in a war zone plagued by frequent ambushes, massacres and systematic sexual violence. Film, photography, and sound recorded during these trips have been used in the production of the Venice project. It stands as one of Ireland’s most successful Biennale exhibitions to date and a ground breaking revival of the old Kodak aerochrome film.
Recently as I was flicking through the internet I came across these photos by photographer Mark Davis of Coachella music festival. He uses an infrared lens similar to the effect given by Kodak Aerochrome film of festivals scenes. Its kind of come full circle now just under 50 years since Jimi Hendrix headlined the festival the same visual technology is being used to document the music. Despite being discontinued it is still obvious that colour infrared photography is still a sought after and highly interesting piece of visual technology today.