ongoing series: infrared sensitive
Part of the magic of analog photography is the physical transformation that happens within the film: you load the film one way, it undergoes chemical change due to light exposure and the development process, and it ends up carefully altered to form the photograph. Even though the scientific basis for this transformation is intricately understood, what happens in the darkness of the camera and the darkroom to create these image artifacts is mythical. This unseen chemical magic is what fuels my continued love of film in the digital age, and my exploration into color-infrared film has only amplified this fascination.
The following photographs are the beginning of my ongoing exploration into Kodak Aerochrome “color infrared” film. The defining feature of Aerochrome film versus traditional film stock is that one layer of the emulsion is sensitive to infrared wavelengths of light. This causes the film to render both the visual and infrared wavelengths of light present in the environment on the reversal to create a distinctive, fantastical look. The film was first developed by Kodak in conjunction with the US military in the 1940’s for camouflage detection (the chlorophyll in plants and shrubbery would be rendered as pink and purple while objects camouflaged to the naked eye would remain their normal color), however the art community began to embrace the psychedelic look of the film in the 1960’s. Notable uses of this stock (and works which have personally inspired me) include the album art for Jimi Hendrix’s “The Jimi Hendrix Experience”, Elliot Landy’s portraits of iconic artists like Bob Dylan, and more recently Richard Mosse’s projects “The Enclave” and “Infra”.
Part of Aerochrome’s allure is that it cannot be faithfully reproduced by any means, digital or otherwise. The distinctive, other-worldly look is rooted in the real, unique interactions of available infrared light with whatever is in front of the lens. This process of invisible light interacting with visible objects is conceptually rich for post-modern photographic exploration, and it adds to the awesome novelty of the colors and look of the film.
Unfortunately, Kodak discontinued producing Aerochome in 2007 due to the lack of demand, so any remaining stock is over a decade old (“expired”) and hand-cut. I feel very lucky to have obtained some of the last 120mm rolls from Dean Bennici, who stockpiled the film before its discontinuation and has sold it ever since, generously providing his unparalleled knowledge and experience (his site is linked here) to those who seek it. Sadly, however, unless Kodak intervenes, the supply of unshot film will soon be completely diminished.
Beyond being difficult to acquire, the film is not easy to deal with. Metering for Aerochrome is rather difficult as altitude and atmospheric conditions influence the availability of infrared light (and thus the speed of the film), and like most reversal films Aerochrome has low dynamic range and a very narrow exposure tolerance. Additionally, a color lens filter (Yellow Wratten #12 is standard, though many can be used to achieve various different looks) is required and exposure must be further compensated for it. Processing is traditionally done with E6 (which is mostly retired and involves noxious chemicals and a more complicated set of reactions), though some chose to “cross-process” the film as standard C41. All this to say, shooting Aerochrome involves careful accounting for the different exposure-related variables and lots of creative choices which influence the look of the final product.
So, while dealing with all the exposure and processing quirks of shooting color infrared film is challenging, the results are incredibly rewarding. The applications and creative possibilities are so exciting, and I feel privileged to be among the last to work with the film (for now!)