The question of what we see – and how – is not a simple one. Visibility is as much about means, the way in which something becomes visible, as it is about presence, what is actually seen. Photography has long been one of the key ways in which the world is made visible to us; the picture brings so much to light, collapsing distances, drawing the past into the present. Or at least it seems to, because what can be seen in a photograph is not just there, either. The fraught nature of this visibility is what lies at the heart of Edward Thompson’s The Unseen: An Atlas of Infrared Plates, in particular the weight of cultural history that shapes how photography might make the world visible in specific ways. These are narratives of strangeness and displacement, deliberately encompassing a wide vocabulary of photographic roles, ranging from those of the laboratory to the tropes of popular photography. Most immediately obvious of course is the fact that these pictures have been made with infrared film, as evidenced by their characteristic shift in hue. By its very nature this material is dedicated to showing what can’t be seen, that is, the portion of light that extends beyond the visible spectrum.
This is, however, only the point at which Thompson begins, not his conclusion. It is hardly enough to show that certain types of photographic material picture the world in specific ways. The history of that material is also being implicated here, its scientific and military use perhaps foremost in our minds. Such ‘visibility’ belongs, at least in part, to the history of warfare; it is a peripheral technology of destruction. More than the effect of the film, however, is the simple fact of its obsolescence; we just don’t need the stuff anymore, and with it goes a whole host of associations to a world in which it was needed, along with the ways in which that world was organized. The transition from analogue to digital technologies of representation marks one of the great cultural fractures of our time. Thompson’s use of this material, among the last of its kind to be manufactured, isn’t nostalgia, but serves as a way of complicating the easy narrative comparing a lost analogue stability to the digital slipperiness of now. The ‘old order’ was never what it seemed; Thompson’s unsettling, vaguely dystopian vision is the collision of that supposedly abandoned past with a world yet to come.
Beginning in a little country village, which is nonetheless sinister in its desertion, we head for the sprawling metropolis, seen from above, and all cities viewed in this way seem to belong to the future, if only because they are largely scrubbed of human presence, which was to have been the fate of all futuristic cities, made to be perfectly uninhabitable. In between, the tracery of heavenly matter is linked to the blood in our veins, revealed by the hidden frequencies that Thompson’s obsolete film is sensitive to, but its effects also mean that his naked subjects have started to look rather less human than they perhaps otherwise would. They are still recognizable, of course, but their appearance now hints at a curious hybridity. As a result, we might place Thompson’s narrative in the realm of science fiction, playing on contemporary anxieties about contamination and ecological meltdown with a selection of well-chosen tropes from the genre. There is indeed this aspect to the work, important not least because the abjectness and irrationality of the global situation facing us today can’t entirely be accounted for with a ‘realist’ vocabulary; fact and fiction now seem to have become largely interchangeable.
In this way, he makes use of borrowed styles to sketch the history of a world in which order was provided by acts of representation that would function in an established fashion, the world seen in particular ways was the world (apparently) known. But the distortion provided by the film undercuts that certainty. The value of accounting for people and places in particular ways no longer seems to hold true and so there is a sense of instability that does not simply result from the strangeness of seeing the world in the wild colours of infrared photography. Rather it is the combination of this characteristic distortion with the styles of particular photographic uses, drawing on everything from travel photography to camera club favourites (that quaint, if supposedly haunted, village wouldn’t be out of place in any vintage magazine for aspiring shutterbugs) to the anatomizing gaze of medical photography. The style of the picture tells us something quite apart from its content and, although styles are usually a transparent function of the picture, here that transparency has been over-turned by the effects of the infrared material, which is not just an end in itself, but a means – among other things – of showing us the unseen conceits of a given pictorial style; all these forms of knowing, these histories, are connected.
And where they are connected, their nexus, is the picture itself. But this is not always explicitly visible, as it is a property of the medium to, as it were, cover its tracks; we don’t see the picture, the photograph especially, as an act of representation. This point is clearly made in Thompson’s narrative by a sequence that depicts a number of different paintings held by the Royal Engineers Museum. On one level this alludes to the other uses of infrared film by art conservators to show aspects of a work that might not be visible to the naked eye. In effect we are seeing the machinery of the (painted) image, a picture within a picture, that is a virtual history of the painting itself, contained within its material structure. But what’s more striking here is the connection between the infrared material as a minor technology of warfare (with its use in aerial reconnaissance, for instance) and the provenance of these paintings. Here is the camera as another kind of witness, in this case to the construction of imperialistic and nationalist ideologies, made to celebrate a now debased past. In fact, this ‘witness’ reveals the extent to which that history is essentially an unstable accumulation of received images.
In this sense, then, the use of infrared material should not be understood as a mere effect, a filter that is being applied to these different subjects in an effort to make them appear somehow strange or uncanny. Instead, the necessity for its use arises from the work at its most basic level and therefore can’t be separated from what the work is about; the effect of the film is actually what makes this meaning possible, it doesn’t just enhance or underscore it as a kind of visual emphasis. Indeed, it is precisely the visual effect of the infrared film that defines this work, making us especially aware, for example, of how London, when seen from above, appears infested by a sinister growth, which is, in fact, an impression created by the characteristic shift of green foliage to deep red when seen with infrared film. But this purely technological effect is here tied to the sense of unease running through all the ‘chapters’ that make up the work, so that the same theme of infection is picked up again the in pictures showing the veins under the skin of different models photographed in the studio (using specific poses outlined by one Dr. Lou Gibson, a pioneer of medical infrared photography). In this way, Thompson deftly links the conceptual, the technological and the historical strands of his narrative.
What is an “atlas” anyway? Well, in the first place it is a collection of maps, that is, schematic (and symbolic) renderings of ostensibly real places, the actual made virtual – and readable. It is also in another, related sense, a kind of guide to that imagined (virtual) world, and how this world is represented tells us something fundamental about how it is understood. The deliberately old fashioned, pseudo-scientific tone of the title (featuring “plates” rather than just pictures) alludes to the machinery of a lost order, contrasted to a distinct sense of disorder in the present, a theme carried through all the different series that make up the book. It could also be that this past stability was in itself an illusion and what Thompson is actually ‘mapping’ here is the shadowy side of a supposedly idyllic past; the utopia of yesterday is often tomorrow’s nightmare. So the heroic industry of worker bees finds its echo in the dregs of a Soviet worker’s paradise, except of course the bees are dying and the particular corner of the former USSR that Thompson turns his – literally – penetrating gaze on is a stunted forest in the dead zone around Chernobyl. It seems the worst has already happened and will keep happening, again and again.
(Edward Thompson, The Unseen: An Atlas of Infrared Plates, Schilt Publishing, 2016)