What the eyes can’t see

  • Seeing the world differently through infrared, the same things, but with a twist
- Kurchi Dasgupta
Infrared photography is all about physics and involves a lot of skill along with a good helping of luck for the lens has to be on autofocus as the human eye cannot discern infrared rays

Feb 11, 2018-Last Tuesday, February 6, saw the opening of an exhibition of photographs showcasing sheer beauty at Siddhartha Art Gallery. Spectrum by Laurence Kent Jones oozes a perfect mix of visual grace and edgy compositional skills. Of the nearly two dozen pieces on show, most are what we would term ‘black and white’, with a few colour pieces adding moments of surprise. Closer inspection reveals that the black and whites are not our everyday monochromes, but are quite dreamlike in their distribution of light and darkness. The light gleams with an ethereal fluorescence quite unlike anything I have seen before, turning quotidian moments captured in Nepal and Bhutan into surreal images reminiscent of De Chirico. The shimmering whites and intense blacks traverse a range of sharply delineated grays, and unfurl breathtaking panoramas in the sun kissed heights of Mustang, the lush valleys of Bhutan, the crowded alleys of Lalitpur and spectacular monuments in India. I soon learn that the ethereal quality of the images are induced by the infrared modifications that Jones uses in his camera (a Canon EOS 5D Mark III to be specific), and the unbelievable stretches of horizon are thanks to clever, intuitive stitching of multiple images numbering anywhere between two to twenty. For example, the lilting paean to the Paro Valley (2017 06-18 Bhutan IR Pan 094-103 cropped Paro Valley, Bhutan) brings together 13 consecutive shots in a panoramic weave.

Born to a family of professional photographers (his father was a combat photographer and his mother practiced in Los Angeles), Jones took to photography at the age of 7 or 8, but became seriously immersed only as a teenager. His CV says, tongue in cheek, that he held a ‘day job’ as an officer in the Foreign Service of the US Department of State, with him holding the post of the American Consul in Kathmandu between 2015 and 2017. More pertinently, he has shown his works at the groundbreaking First Ghetto Biennale (2009) and the most recent, Fifth Ghetto Biennale (2017) and has had a bunch of photography expositions in the US.

Jones discovered infrared photography by accident, in a second hand encyclopedia his father had bought him when he was eleven, “the photos were attributed only to the Puerto Rico Board of tourism—but he or she took pictures of entrancing clarity and originality using infrared film. I was permanently fascinated. As I started to get serious about photography myself I wanted to take pictures like that,” he said. But Jones soon realised that it was too expensive and involved too much guesswork and so he committed himself to decades of practice and experiments with classic 35mm high speed films. A diehard fan of Kodachrome, Jones even rolled his own cartridges and processed and developed his own negatives into the 2000’s but had to moved over to digital completely by 2008 as “the quality of the films kept going down, as did that of the processing chemicals and so the images began to get bad and grainy when compared to the sharpness and enlarging potential of digital images.” Interestingly, the production of Kodachrome was discontinued in 2009.

According to Jones, infrared photography is all about physics and involves a lot of skill along with a good helping of luck for the lens has to be on autofocus as the human eye cannot discern infrared rays. Infrared radiation involves electromagnetic radiation with longer wavelengths than that of visible light and it falls beyond the red part of the spectrum visible to us. “Almost any digital camera can be modified to take pictures in infrared, but there is a cost as the camera cannot then be used for standard colour photography. I made the leap six years ago and am very happy with where infrared has taken me. Infrared has made it possible to see the world differently, the same things, but with a twist. Sometimes it gives you a surreal otherworldly quality, and yet the pictures are fully recognisable as things we know. Sometimes really familiar things can become really original. I’ve really enjoyed my journey into the spectrum, only a little bit beyond the familiar colours of our world. The panoramas, infrared and color, are assembled or stitched together in the computer from multiple overlapping images. I found that I could use the technique to get a bigger picture and in a sense, a more complete meaning. It also enabled me to shoot very wide without the distortion brought about by wide angle lenses. Thus, when I shoot infrared and panoramic I call the picture double technical,” said Jones.

There is obviously a reasonable amount of post-production involved and for this, Jones uses Photoshop, supplemented with Hugin and PTGui. He prefers LifePixel for the camera modifications. One must be careful of setting the white balance in a camera modified for infrared photography, for one might end up with blue or magenta instead of white. “The first time I had my camera modified, I went around making images that had blue replacing white!” he shared with a laugh. 

Though his images from South Asia record mostly natural beauty and landscapes, with an occasional cityscape of Lalitpur or Bouddha thrown in, his work in Hong Kong had concentrated more intensely on contemporary urban reality. And his continuing work on Haiti bears evidence of his committed interest in socio-cultural anthropology. “The intersection between public and private space in Haiti…Haiti is a country that lives in the streets and public spaces...Commercial real estate in North America lives by the mantra ‘location, location, location’  and a street vendor in Port au Prince lives by it too. I propose to update and deepen my inquiry into the distribution of the resource of public space, documenting its use photographically and captioning my photos with interviews concerning the history and theory of peoples’ claims to it, cross-referencing the direct experience ofpeople on the street with academic work on markets and geographic analysis,” he said.

Jones’ bookshelf at home is chockablock with books by and on those who inspire his work—you would definitely find the Group f/64. Upon inquiring he replied, “Actually, I could go on and on about the photographers I love and have studied, and when you look that closely at the work something is going to seep into your soul. Influences?  The Westons, of course, father Edward and sons Brett and Cole, and Ansel Adams (these are f/64 people), Berenice Abbot, Minor White, Andreas Feininger, Dorothea Lang, Josef Sudek, and Gordon Parks and Susan Derges come to mind as photographers whose influence is explicit. Indirect influences? Scores, hundreds? I’ve spent most of my life, even those periods when I wasn’t working seriously on photography looking intensely at other people’s works.” Well, that should give you an idea of what to expect at this really beautiful show, and ‘beautiful’ is a word I do not use often.

Published: 11-02-2018 08:11

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