Infrared Rays of Faith

WERE one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order…

– William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Since we’re on the subject of infrared photography, two posts touching on IR crossed in my RSS reader recently:

Faith | n j w v-1

Kohei Yoshiyuki, ThePark

The first post references a sermon given by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household, in which Cantalamessa compares faith to infrared photography and particularly infrared satellite imaging:

Today, from artificial satellites infrared photographs of whole regions of the Earth and of the whole planet are taken. How different the landscape looks when seen from up there, in the light of those rays, compared to what we see in natural light and from down here! I remember one of the first satellite pictures published in the world; it reproduced the entire Sinai Peninsula. The colors were different, the reliefs and depressions were more noticeable. It is a symbol. Even human life, seen in the infrared rays of faith, from atop Calvary, looks different from what you see “with the naked eye.”

It’s interesting that Cantalamessa chooses for a symbol of faith a kind of image that is so totally artificial and dependent on technology, not only in terms of imaging equipment, but also in terms of actual rocket science. I suppose it speaks to the persuasive quality inherent to the photographic medium: even something as arbitrary as false color infrared not only retains the persuasive quality of documentary evidence but even acquires an aura of higher reality by virtue of its very disagreement with the evidence of our own eyes.

The other post is at Slate’s Behold blog, discussing Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park, in which Yoshiyuki used infrared flashbulbs to photograph perverts who gathered in the park to watch (and sometimes grope) amorous couples.

After he worked to become a familiar fixture to the spectators, he began to capture the scenes with Kodak infrared flashbulbs. Reflecting on the project, Yoshiyuki wrote via email:

“As I was so amazed at these scenes, I was dying to record what was happening in the darkness and I was strongly hoping to capture them with my camera. The couples had been entirely unaware of their surroundings and the presence of voyeurs. They were young couples with a lust for love and probably had nowhere else to go. If they had noticed that the voyeurs were next to them, I’m sure the couple would not continue their lovemaking actions … they would come to the park just to take a walk and have a good talk….

“The voyeurs always approached the couples from behind because they had to be out of the man’s line of vision. … there was a kind of community in which the voyeurs lived. ‘To touch up a woman’s body’ was a kind of a competitive game for them in the society. It was risky, but it was something very thrilling for them to do, just like an exciting game to play. So when a voyeur was able to touch the woman’s body, it was a success story among them and the guy could be a hero of the night as a voyeur.”

In Yoshiyuki’s photographs, it is the invisibility of the infrared light cast by his flashbulbs that is essential. By using it, he is able to operate unnoticed by his voyeur subjects and entirely unseen by their oblivious victims. The infrared spectrum does not provide specialized new information here in the way that it does for aerial/satellite surveys, but it nonetheless — by virtue of stealth — shows us a whole community of otherwise invisible people.

I find it interesting that infrared photography lends itself so easily both to the transcendent and to the transgressive. One way or another, it is showing us things we shouldn’t be able to see. And this is on top of the longstanding contradiction that IR photography enables both the ethereal, dreamy visions of, say, Minor White’s infrared landscapes, and the harder but no less surreal views of infrared military documents.

I suppose it isn’t surprising that a technology for seeing the invisible should have this paradoxical appeal to science, war, reverie, and religion. It expands our ability to collect and represent information about the the world we see, and it also disrupts our habitual assumptions about the primacy of our unaugmented sight. I think there is always something phenomenological about it, because it always poses questions to the viewer about the nature of their experience.

This is equally true of UV photography (for example, the UV portraits of Cara Phillips), but I think it is not true of X-Ray imaging, FLIR, and many other methods of scanning, because they are alien enough in appearance that they seem wholly different from vision. They sit comfortably apart from our default view, while infrared and UV photos often seem to hip-check it.

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