I have always been fascinated with infrared photography; indeed, I have spent countless hours surfing the net, looking at mind-blowing pictures. Yet, until a few months ago, I was still admiring it “from a distance”, never having tried it before. This is unlike me; in fact, whenever I discover a new technique or style, I usually throw myself headlong into it, with a hearty dose of both childlike overenthusiasm and amateurish naiveté. The main reason that kept me from experimenting with IR photography is strictly connected to my analog equipment; let me explain why.
A couple of years ago I bought a Contax G2; for those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s a mid nineties, 35mm rangefinder camera with autofocus. Yes, AUTOFOCUS, you read it correctly. You either love it or hate it; I won’t hide the fact that I’m biased when it comes to my most prized possession, but I personally think it’s an underestimated, relatively cheap camera, that comes with superb prime lenses. Anyway, that was what I could afford with my savings at the time and, to this day, I still don’t regret my choice, but I digress. What I didn’t know back then was that unfortunately it’s not best suited for infrared: the Contax has an IR rewind sensor, which might fog up the film. As a self-taught dilettante, I gathered this information online, but isn’t this the best place where you can get easily accessible, yet not so trustworthy info? Don’t get me wrong, I myself relied on Wikipedia quite heavily in my university days; my point is, sometimes photography forums can be really helpful, though, they can just confuse you even further, and this was exactly my case. In light of this, I quickly abandoned the idea of approaching infrared photography, for it seemed to me like a waste of time and money, and, to be honest, my technical skills were on the lower end of the scale. When you are taking your first baby steps into the photography world, you should learn how to get decent exposures first, instead of stepping ahead and focus on a more advanced technique such as infrared, and that’s what I did in the following years.
Back in April, during Easter break, I took part in a three day workshop organised by the school on infrared photography and advanced darkroom printing techniques. At first I was a little skeptical and worried about my camera’s performance; however, the Contax did not disappoint me and I was pleasantly surprised at the pictures that I took. I don’t want to focus exclusively on the technicalities, since I clearly don’t have enough experience under my belt to say I’m an expert already and I may oversimplify it, but with infrared photography you capture the infrared wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, by blocking the light visible to the human eye. Easier said than done! To be fair, though, the process has proven to be more cumbersome than complicated; I should also add that it’s quite expensive, if you take into account all the extra gear you need: filters, a changing bag, a tripod and a cable release at the very least. Also, you have to be particularly careful in handling the IR films, by avoiding direct sunlight, high temperatures and humidity. Longer exposure times, coupled with IR focus shift need to be factored in as well.
Despite its complexity, I strongly believe that infrared photography is well worth the effort. Trust me, I get easily annoyed whenever I have to carry around bulky cameras and additional equipment; I wouldn’t bother if there weren’t a payoff. Also, I find that explaining a technique can be quite gruelling for two reasons: first, it has to do with the way I am hardwired; I acquire knowledge intuitively, and trying to spell out how intuition works is a moot point. Whenever someone asks me how I achieve a specific result, my default answer is: “I have no idea.” They usually change subjects, as how could they argue with someone who is clearly not all there? Second but not less important and on a more serious note, I reckon the crucial part of the creative process is not how you create an image, but rather the effectiveness of the message that you want to convey.
In this light, I am particularly drawn to infrared as it opens up a refreshing way of representing reality. As I’m going through what I would call a self-reflective phase in my photography, I haven’t realised until now the extent to which I tend to alter reality in my pictures. Most of them are either cross processed or high contrast black and white images. They are like cheap gilded jewellery: it may look rich at first, but the more you wear it the more it gets tarnished and you start seeing the plain metal underneath. Similarly, the more I study my photos, the more I see them for what they are: self-deceptive attempts at masking reality. Conversely, IR technology allows you to go beyond what’s visible to us to uncover what we wouldn’t be able to see normally with our sensory system alone. What is true then, and what is the illusion? All this reminds me of the Veil of Maya concept, and this is why I find infrared so fascinating mainly on a conceptual level; once you master the technique the possibilities are endless.
Specifically, I like the way it makes landscapes look otherworldly, eerily beautiful, almost as if there is something ominous lurking in the shadows. I also find that shooting IR portraits gives interesting, uncanny results. They are far from being flattening, what with the Tim Burton-esque look, the very pale skin and the lack of catch light in their pitch-black eyes, yet I find IR images of people captivating for their “narrative potential”. In this connection, I consider them as a sort of photographic equivalent of a “doppelgänger”, as it is commonly referred to in literature: strangely familiar, yet Other, sinister representations of ourselves. Though I still have to explore this venue and I am just a beginner in infrared photography, I believe it will prove to be a valuable means of representing the world and human nature from a new perspective.