KUNMING, YUNNAN PROVINCE
2000m ABOVE SEA LEVEL
AEROCHROME By Dave Tacon
There’s something seductive about being able to see the unseen.
These photographs were shot in various corners of China (the island of Hainan, China’s southernmost province, Shanghai and Kunming, capital of southern Yunnan Province), with Kodak Aerochrome III, a discontinued false colour infrared film designed for aerial photography. With the correct lens filter, it reveals infrared light and ultraviolet light, both invisible to the naked eye. The most arresting characteristic of this film is that it renders healthy foliage bright pink, red, or purple, depending on which filter is used. As visible light is also captured within its spectrum, some materials retain their original colour. The US military used it for camouflage detection during the Vietnam war, but it was also used for mapping, forestry surveys and other applications.
I happened upon a handful of rolls of this hard to come by film by chance. A Dutch photographer in Shanghai, where I live, decided to off-load them when he decided they were too volatile and unpredictable for the project he had in mind. Shooting the film has been an exercise in experimentation. The first images in this series were shot in Hainan, in the resort city of Sanya, and Jianfeng Ridge National Park, which contains the country’s largest remaining pocket of tropical rainforest. As I develop the series, I have aimed to combine more varied materials including the urban camouflage ubiquitous in Chinese cities such as construction hoarding that includes images of forests and artificial hedges. Increasingly, I am looking for everyday scenes with a human element to render them extraordinary and dreamlike.
As a medium that unlocks the invisible, the creative use of infrared colour film really took off in the psychedelic Sixties. The cover of Jimi Hendrix’s debut album, ‘Are You Experienced?’ with its mind bending fish-eye lens distortion and jarringly odd colours was shot by British photographer Karl Ferris on an earlier type of Kodak Aerochrome. Colour infrared film also established the ‘far out’ images of artists such as The Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Donovan.
By 2007, colour infrared film had fallen so far out of fashion that Kodak discontinued its last consumer infrared stocks while the rise of digital imaging brought the company to the verge of bankruptcy. The unique Kodak Aerochrome was never available as a consumer film - only in film sheets sized for large format aerial cameras. All rolls still in circulation come from one source: Dean Bennici a Californian photographer who has hand rolled more than 100,000 medium format rolls over the last 12 years. Of these, only a few hundred are left. The very last batches of the film reached their expiration date in 2011.
The film presents a number of technical challenges. It is notoriously fragile, susceptible to temperature changes and difficult to correctly expose, that is to calculate the correct amount of light to give to the film when the camera shutter opens and closes. Although a little trial and error can give a clue to how colours will present themselves, this is still determined by factors beyond what the eye can see. The result is a glimpse into a world where invisible dimensions of light become visible and the ordinary becomes uncanny.