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Infrared Photographs Reveal The Secret Worlds Our Eyes Can't See

People, forests, cities: documentary photographer Edward Thompson uses infrared film to uncover new things about familiar subjects.

The appeal of infrared photography is in its ability to reveal aspects of our world that are normally invisible, picking up longer wavelengths of light that our eyes can't see. In its near 100-year history, this otherworldly form of photography has appeared in everything from scientific research in the 1930s to psychedelic album cover art in the 1960s.

The U.K.-based photographer Edward Thompson set out to create a survey of all its diverse uses, from scientific to artistic, utilizing a type of color infrared film that isn't even produced anymore. His book documenting the results of those experiments, The Unseen, will be published next month after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Human beings can see light with wavelengths between 400-700 nanometers, which is also the range of light captured by most film. Infrared light lies between the visible and microwave portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, and when film is sensitive to it, photographs can pick up on the light beyond our vision. "I found that infrared film with the correct filtration can reveal light up to 700-900 nanometers, allowing you to capture the invisible," says Thompson.

The view from Rose Court from The Village, 2010. England. 120mm CIR Photograph.

Thompson used a color infrared film called Kodak Aerochrome, normally used in aerial photography. Though the film is no longer made, he sourced the film from a man in Germany, who cut it down to a size that could be used in commercial cameras. The resulting photographs are haunting images, seeped in a deep, saturated red.

Trained as a documentary photographer, in the The Unseen Thompson uses infrared film as a tool to examine hidden aspects of his subjects, from pollution in the atmosphere and veins running underneath human skin to the health of fauna. In that way, Thompson's photographs are like encrypted missives that only reveal a deeper meaning to those who know the code. Below, see a few of his photographs—along with explanations of what they reveal.

The Vein

Hand #6 from The Vein, 2015. 120mm CIR Photograph.

While researching infrared photography, Thompson came across an intriguing medical use for it, invented in 1963 by a Dr. Lou Gibson. Using a technique called infrared luminescence—in which he would illuminate the subject with visible radiation and then record the luminescence in the infrared part of the spectrum—Gibson photographed vivid images of peoples' veins, later even using the technique to find tumors and cancers. Thompson employed the same technique to reveal the hidden veins of his subjects in a vivid blue.

After the Flood, After the Red River Valley

Alluvium deposits on a river floodplain where the camp stood from After the Flood, After the Red River Valley, 2012. India. 120mm CIR Photograph.

With infrared film, healthy vegetation appears in a deep red, while unhealthy plants show up lighter red, purple, blueish or brown. Thompson explains this phenomenon in the book, writing, "Healthy green plants appear in shades of red, because of sunlight strongly in the photographic infrared region (therefore strongly exposing the infrared sensitive layer) while simultaneously reflecting relatively little energy in the visible region (therefore offering little exposure to the green and red sensitive layers.)"

After a heavy monsoon rain led to devastating flooding in Northern India in 2012, killing 124 people and displacing over 6 million, Thompson traveled to a refugee camp there to document the aftermath. Thompson borrowed a technique from the 1970s, which used aerial infrared photography to assess the damage done to crops in flooded areas—but he shot the series in his typical documentary-style, from the ground.

The City

Studies in Pollution #7. The River Thames from The City, 2014. England. 120mm CIR Photograph.

The same blood-red representation of greenery comes up again in Thompson's series The City. Thompson flew over London in a helicopter to document the city and capture some visual evidence of its polluted atmosphere. The smog that usually appears in a yellow band in standard color photographs is a vivid, impossible-to-ignore red on his infrared film. Meanwhile, in this photo, the film reveals how green London also is, with the trees in the photograph highlighted in a deep, healthy red. "It is interesting to consider this duality when looking at the work: a city that is polluted and green," Thompson writes.


A storm approaching Pripyat from The Red Forest, 2012. Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl. 120mm CIR Photograph.

When the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the USSR caused a catastrophic health and environmental disaster in 1986, the wind blew much of the radioactive fallout to the nearby Wormwood Forest. After the clean-up, new trees were planted in place of the ones that died due to radiation, but they grew in strangely—stunted or, in some cases, upside down—and the forest is still dangerously radioactive.

When Thompson heard that the area had become known as the Red Forest since the first batch of radioactive trees grew red and died, he knew he wanted to document it. Yet, in his photographs, the infrared film rendered the trees bright red—signaling that they were relatively healthy. The only trace of the unseen radiation in the atmosphere are on the film itself. "Tiny black specks cover the film emulsion," Thompson writes. "This only occurred when the film was used in Chernobyl and does not seem to have happened when it was used in other parts of the world. The U.K. office of Kodak had no idea how or why this happened."

Thompson's book The Unseen can be purchased here.

[All Photos: Edward Thompson/Schilt Publishing & Gallery]

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