Saturday, 18 September 2010

Infrared II: Ulorin and the Heygate Estate

Ulorin Vex in infrared - the colour of Patrick Nagel

There's a popular location near Elephant & Castle, in London, called the Heygate Estate. It looks awful in a very photogenic way and it's being pulled down, as per this article in The Guardian. The whole area is being redeveloped, which is odd because London could do with a load of cheap homes. Here's a photograph of it, with the Strata building in the background:

All of the flats on the right are empty, all but a handful of the flats on the left are empty, and there are more buildings like this behind me and out of sight around the edges of the frame. Perhaps the flats were awful hellholes, Chinese water torture noise machines, evolved to crush the human spirit, but it seems senseless to smash the whole thing down. Where will the people go? Can't we house really really poor people in the flats? Poor people don't mind living in horrible conditions, in fact they rather enjoy it. Or we could build a wall around the whole area and use it as an experimental anarchist community. The possibilities are mind-boggling.

Here's the Strata building itself, shot from the block of flats in the far distance above:

Still, social matters are not my field. Like a tourist I decided to have a look at the place before it is gone. It's a fascinating location; in four hours there I saw two residents, one photo crew, two wandering photographers, pigeons, no-one else. It's like the radioactive city of Pripyat, but five minutes' walk from Elephant & Castle rather than hundreds of miles away in Ukraine.

I brought along Ulorin Vex, popular internet lady and also drawing artist. She wears many hats, although on this occasion she wasn't actually wearing any hats, not literal hats. It was freezing cold and she could have done with a hat. Perhaps another day. We both explored the Elephant & Castle shopping centre and we both used the toilets there, but at different times and for different purposes. She to change; me to pee.

The last time I did this I forgot to bring along a visible light camera for comparison, so this time I stuffed my 5D MkII into my backpack so that I can show you the difference between the reality of visible light and the fantasy world of The Beatles infrared. Here's what Ulorin looks like in visible light, with visible proof that it was cold:

Same outfit, similar location - surprisingly, despite being in a deserted tower block in London, it didn't smell of pee - but in infrared:

As before, I used a converted Canon 10D and a Canon 70-210mm f/4. This is an ancient EOS lens from the very early days of the system; it's one of the odd old lenses features on, here, and stood out because it has a constant f/4 aperture. I tend to use it for infrared work because the camera's autofocus system was calibrated with this lens, and works properly, whereas other lenses are slightly off.

The technique is maddeningly inconsistent with people, and of course there's a distinctive zombified look. I find that whacking up the contrast helps greatly. Just in case there are any angiographers reading this, here's an eye:

The caption says it all

Eyes tend to look very dark in infrared, and whilst doing some research to find out why I stumbled on a scientific paper entitled Does the Earth have an Adaptive Infrared Iris?[1] This put me in mind of the whole early-90s Terence McKenna "stoned ape" / X-Files / crop circles movement, and then I had a listen to the first minute or so of The Shamen's "Re:Evolution", and then I got bored and never worked out anything about the eyes thing. And now I am bored with this paragraph and so it must die.

Different outfit, similar location, same lens, visible light, standing in front of a metal grille that had an interesting texture:

As you can see, the infrared effect nullifies Ulorin's hair, which is one of her most striking features. A bit of a waste really. Still, my conclusions are that (a) pale-skinned people work in infrared (b) latex is not transparent in infrared, and tends to retain its shade (fabrics go all over the place) and (c) the Heygate Estate is well worth a visit. Take the kids.

And that is that. In the next post I'll probably go into some detail about the history of infrared imaging - it's yet another technology that was invented by the military and has since fallen into the hands of photographers, along with e.g. runway-cratering bombs, nerve gas, and high-explosive squash head tank ammunition, all of which appear regularly in the pages of Vogue.