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Richard Mosse: Infrared Insights

Richard Mosse Man Size 2011 Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery New York

The epiphany of Richard Mosse’s photographs of Congo—currently on view at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery—is Aerochrome, an infrared Kodak film stock invented during the Cold War in conjunction with the US military in order to see enemy activity from the air. Discontinued in 2009, it has been used for many other things: cartography, forestry and, in the 1960s, for psychedelia. (Vancouver photographer Karl Ferris’ cover shot for the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced? was created with infrared film.) The stock generally conveys greens as shades of pink, purple and red, and reds as shades of yellow or orange, but its effects are not entirely predictable, making it a dynamic—if dear and labour-intensive—medium.

Mosse’s successful use of the stock is built on a kind of matchmaking. In an essay from his upcoming Aperture book, he describes the landscape of eastern Congo as “Dr. Seuss,” a designation that, of course, bears traces of exoticist sentiment. That the stock was originally used for American surveillance, however, indicates Mosse’s purposefulness in this respect: these photos are a Conradian exploration of the apparent strangeness of Congo to Western eyes. That they at times depict the violent conflict currently happening in the area—so bafflingly atrocious and nightmarish to so many—emphasizes the point.

Some of the photographs’ titles are taken from rock songs by the likes of P.J. Harvey, the Rolling Stones and Can, highlighting Aerochrome’s psychedelic uses. Is Mosse viewing Congo merely as a head trip, making parallels between the jungle of central Africa and that of Vietnam, the latter so important to the visual aesthetic of the late 1960s and the 1970s? Perhaps, but he is also drawing attention to the inherent incongruity of the photojournalist’s task. In using a medium meant to suss out, Mosse finds more questions than answers, more abstraction than accuracy, and more beauty than realism.

This is part of a series of postings by assistant editor David Balzer, who is in New York for the fall season. For earlier articles in this series, continue reading here, here and here.

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