Ed Thompson’s new photobook The Unseen is a visually stunning compendium of infrared photography. Shot over a period of a few years, his exploration into the medium has taken him from his hometown of Kent, to the outer edges of our galaxy. Along his journey, he also delves into; beekeeping, Chernobyl, refugees, climate change, and ghost hunting.
The book reads as if it is a long-forgotten occult bible, and many of the projects echo his fascination with obsessive subcultures and the esoteric.
After Nyne’s Benjamin Murphy meets the artist to get the inside view.
BM: Why did you decide to start shooting on infrared film, and what does this method of working give you that traditional media does not?
ET: I grew up in Kent where there is a village called Pluckley that is over 1000 years old and said to be the most haunted village in England. As I child I went there with an old 110mm camera and tried to photograph the ghosts. I failed, of course, and then grew up. Whilst photographing the series Nuclear Families in 2010 I noticed that the bricks of the old coastguard cottages the families lived in were stamped Pluckley. There is a haunted derelict brickworks in Pluckley and I took that as an omen that I should start a series on Pluckley next. The land has a psychogeography and I wanted to try and find a way of working that through the image. At first I thought about making a landscape series that focused on the presence of absence but then I started researching spirit photography and got looking into contemporary ghost hunters. I joined a ghost club for two years and found that they were using infrared technology, being a film photographer I started to look into infrared film stocks. The year I started to photograph The Village (2010) was the year that Kodak Aerochrome stock was discontinued, so again I took this as an initiator for the project.
The results I got back from those first few rolls were incredible and it sparked my interest in the medium of infrared film. What started with parapsychology led me towards other more respected fields of science like medicine and astronomy. There were 1,800 reported uses of infrared film over the years, which meant I had a lot to research and a huge wealth of ideas to play with and subvert. I was a regular at the British Library Humanities reading room pouring over discontinued books and scientific journals, if I was going to use some of the most rare film on the planet I had to make sure I got it right first time. It had to be right technically, but also with my choice of subject matter and the interplay between the two on a conceptual level. The Unseen is a multi-layered book with a number of overlapping narratives.
How much does your medium dictate your subject matter, and what will you do once the infrared film has all run out?
Infrared as a medium shows us things that are beyond our visible spectrum, so firstly I went through researching just what unseen elements the film could reveal. I also started focusing on subjects that were unseen in different ways, like events that go unreported or things humanity chooses to ignore such as pollution and climate change. The majority of the series has two narratives – a scientific one and a narrative one, that both focus on the unseen. The portraits of refugees in After the flood, After the Red River valley were at a refugee camp from a flooding that had hardly any media attention (whilst those floods were happening in Northern India the world was focused on a hurricane in NYC). In a way they are unseen because of the nature of our western-media-centric view of the world. Also infrared film was used in flooding to take aerial photographs of crops to show the unseen damage of saltwater to vegetation. There are a lot of narratives and strange interplays going on in the book between each chapter, it is very finely crafted thanks to working with the amazing book designers Heijdens Karwei.
There is a wider thematic at work; something that I hope readers will be able to see beyond the more superficial aesthetics of the infrared film. Although alluding to the interplay between art and science, the work also dwells within the realm of science fiction. We live in a time when art photographers are working to make fake documentary fictions, but I’ve made the real seem unreal.
As well as being individual chapters the work can be viewed as a whole, creating a glimpsed narrative of some fated world. Great science fiction, whether it is focused on events of the future, alien planets, or an alternate history, is always passing comment on the present. At the centre of the series is the idea of revealing things we cannot see, things that are beyond our perception. The notion that something is going on somewhere and that we are not aware of it. Paranoia. Like the writing of Phillip K Dick, an alternate world has been created through changing a perceived truth. This other world looks startlingly different and is filled with apocalyptic narratives about disease, pollution, climate change, ghosts, floods, bees, and radioactive forests. The true horror comes when we acknowledge that this is our world and that the struggles and failures in it are our own.
The film itself has run out already, I’ve saved a couple of rolls in case, but the work is complete. There is a certain freedom to that isn’t there? Some artists work within one medium and one subject their entire lives, I like to work from a wider palette. Now I can move forward.
Much of your work is concerned with showing the viewer things that linger below the surface or in the background of things. Do you think it is the role of the artist to show the viewer that which they usually overlook, or are unable to see?
Having spent over 10 years working as a social documentary photographer much of my work has been issue based. In that role I’ve tried to use either emotive or visual devices to draw the viewer into the story. Whether it was a surreal portrait of a featherless battery farm chicken wearing a purple jumper (trying to highlight battery farming), or a series of intimate portraits of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon.
In 2009, before I started the work that would become this book, I’d just finished two traditional photojournalistic essays (both were strong bodies of work but neither sold to any editorial clients). As a freelancer this was a disaster. I then got an illness that confined me to my bed for about six months, so I began this work from a pretty dark place. I really believed it was my last shot, and it explains the nihilistic and apocalyptic choice of subject matter. I felt like an obsolete photographer making work on an obsolete film about an obsolete world. The Unseen still focuses on important issues but the aesthetic is so strong that I think most people will overlook the narrative – this is usually something you try to avoid as a documentary photographer because you’re subject is the primary focus. For these works it was more like an act of defiance and surrender, after years of trying to highlight these issues I was finally comfortable in the irony of showing a world on the brink of destruction to an audience that would probably only see the pretty colours.
I think there is a role that art plays in secular societies that have shuffled off the confines of religion. The gallery is often a large sparse place like a church, and like a church it is somewhere often viewed in silence with not many people in it. I think an artist can help people see things they overlook, and that has value, but as for people being able to comprehend, that’s something else. People see what they want to see.
In many ways the book reads like an old alchemy textbook or some occult bible. Why did you decide to produce it the way you did?
The work is madness. To have spent six years researching and making a body of work of this scale on only 52 rolls of an incredibly rare film takes a certain amount of dedication and lunacy. The book begins with two quotes, the first is by a scientist who pioneered many uses of infrared film, and the second is a quote from a fictional scientist in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I think these two short texts summarise the entire book, a body of work both based in reality and fantasy, connected by the fanaticism of an enquiring mind. Photography is both science and art and this work is somewhere between both of those worlds.
I wanted the book itself to inhabit the world that I photographed within the book. So the design of the cover looks antiquated and esoteric, like a cursed book you could read aloud from and that would open a portal to another world. The cover is elusive in that it doesn’t look like a photography book, instead it looks like a novel about a banned 1920s cult.
The book is divided into chapters, with ones on flooding, astronomy, and forestry. Much like a scientific atlas, but there are corruptions within it. Certain pages have physically moved into other chapters and certain subjects seem to be able to move within the book itself. The beekeeper portraits of The Apiary follow the chapter in the book on astrophotography, framing the context in which we perceive them so they could also now be spacemen. The beekeepers protective clothing can also be read as a hazmat suit, which then foreshadows the final chapter made in the Red Forest of Chernobyl. Like a psychedelic experience the works of each chapter refused to be defined, and like a dream they melt into each other. Scientific enquiry within the history of photography was always focused on factual documentation – this work questions the reliability of our history.
What is the next project that you will be working on now that the book is complete?
In this book I unintentionally killed God. I went looking for ghosts in a haunted village; dissected animal organs, documented overlooked flood victims, visited an abandoned radioactive city, and gazed into deep space. There were no ghosts in the village, there was no soul in the meat, no redemption for the refugees, no return to the city and no heavens in the stars. For my next project I want to try and create something, I have successfully de-programed myself out of compassion for a doomed parallel world and now unburdened I hope to be able to find something else, something good.