I am currently working on a larger article about the history of Aerochrome false color infrared film and attempts to find a digital analog. I actually want to publish the text in a print photography magazine – let’s see if that will work out. Until it does, I’ll post raw interviews, info, and other stuff that I collect in the course of the research here.
I’ll start with an interview with Dean Bennici, a US photographer living in Munich. Bennici has dedicated the past years to making Aerochrome available to the public as their sole distributor and supplied numerous artists including Richard Mosse.
One thing I can say up front: Dean Bennici is not a fan of digital emulation, but that has mostly to do with the fact that he is not a fan of digital photography in general. His statements express his love for analog photography and the element of surprise that comes with working with Aerochrome in particular. Be sure to check out his website. The photo above was taken by Bennici.
Dean, what is actually known about the origin of Aerochrome? Was it really developed on behalf of the US military or is that just a myth?
Dean Bennici: Yes, indeed color infrared was designed exclusively for the military in the 1940’s. It was used somewhat for aerial reconnaissance at the end of WW2 and was used in the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Cold War. It allowed easy detection of most man-made objects camouflaged in natural settings like forests and jungles. It was not until fashion and pop photographer Mr. Karl Ferris obtained some that the general public got their first glimpse of the CIR medium. These images can be seen in much of Mr. Ferris’ early body of work. My sources of information come directly from Kodak and the original artists that used the film and are reinforced by multiple cross-references online.
What is the appeal of this film for you?
As with all film, I need the element of surprise that comes with the analogue process. It is important for me that I do not interact too much with what nature and light are giving me. If it were digital, I would be tempted to tweak the image to my liking and thereby eliminating that surprise. More often than not, the magic happens in the mistakes made when shooting “blind”. As for Aerochrome in particular, this idea is taken to the next step. Infrared light is invisible, so predicting the outcome is even more elusive. We have to assume the color shifts. The more experience you have, the better you can predict, but there are always the extra surprise factors. Very exciting. Saying all of that, I love the beauty of the Aerochrome image, not only with the color shifts, but for the lovely curve of the film. If done correctly, it can appear somewhat like a painting. Having a knowledge of materials and how they react with the film allows you to actually further compose your color composition, so that you actually are painting using materials and light. What other medium does that?
Simply put, Aerochrome records IR, reorders colors and omits blue. Depending on the filter, a different look emerges. What are your favorite filters to use and why?
I actually co not want to omit blue completely, just filter it. I have no one goal when photographing. I want a diverse outcome. I am not going for just one look, but want to exploit the film and see how many different effects I can achieve. Any filter will alter the effects. However, the film is designed specifically to be used with a #12 Wratten yellow filter. I find this great, but restraining. Any filter from a medium yellow through the ranges and into a deep red work wonderfully with this film. I encourage everyone to move away from the standard yellow and experiment. My favorite filters are a #15, #21 and #25. What needs to be understood here is that it is not just the filter choice, but also the materials in the shot as well as the angle of the light source to the lens, etc. For example, the sky may photograph blue at one angle, but if you make an extreme change in angle, the sky may photograph black. Again, photographing a subject under a tree will give a very different result as photographing the same subject under an open sky. Using any filters outside of the yellow-orange-red color band will yield an ugly unwanted effect even for the most experimental work. I just would not recommend it as it defeats the purpose of using this film.
IR photography today is mainly done with DSLRs. Has that never appealed to you?
For the reasons mentioned above, digital photography does not at all appeal to me. I personally don’t like the edgy, crisp look that offers much less character than the analogue image. Even my Grandmother can frame digitally and take a clear, clean shot. Saying that, it seems that getting the sweet analogue aesthetic from digital means working it to look analogue, so why emulate analogue when you can just shoot it? Of course, technology is getting to the point where you can’t always see the difference without a trained eye. So in effect, technology is killing the art of analogue photography, much as digital synthesizers killed the art of analogue sound generation. And who can oil paint like the masters these days?
People try to emulate Aerochrome in a digital way. What would be the hallmarks of a good digital analogue for you?
Again, I find nothing attractive about digital photography, in the interface, process or result. A good digital image for me is one that does not try to emulate analogue. I am not into plastic surgery either. Trying to be what you are not to me seems like a perversion of reality. I think it is a bit arrogant to say you can achieve an analogue image digitally in camera or post. Then you are saying that your work is more dynamic than what nature has to offer. I can show you 1000 images of mine that I would never have thought to come up with by myself, dynamically speaking. You can copy nature in post, but you cannot invent it. What you do invent is your attempt to surpass nature. Finally, the color palette in any given situation is always different, so digitally, you would need to create 100 different color palettes. It is not just merely color swapping, like people think. Naturally, there are many variables that come together to make up the color scheme of that particular shot. Who could guess that with a color swap? The swap might say, turn greens to reds, but sometimes with film, the greens turn orange, etc.
Does Aerochrome film have a future? And what projects are you working on?
I have no more film. I am working on a 16mm Aerochrome film, but the is very grainy film and it turned out very Lomo. I do not know if I will ever release it. I did have some clips from it online. No one cares really how difficult it was or how special it is. They are concerned with their first impression. The younger generations have their eyes trained to expect a HD image and it turns them off to see something soft and full of analogue artifacts. That is the unfortunate reality. I will continue to shoot out my last few dozen rolls of 120 and that is it. I am attempting to put a book together detailing the project and CIR history in general with some amazing contributions from the artists that paved the way, but I still need a great setter, printer and publisher. My last idea will be to take all the tiny scraps I have from cutting and align then into mosaic patterns and then shoot, creating mosaic puzzle infrared images. I would say that Aerochrome has seen its day. Kodak specifically discontinued the film, because it was used for scientific purposes and not for artistic purposes. The scientific community is interested in collecting accurate data. This can be done more effectively using digital technology. Aerochrome itself was never on the market for consumers. That was my idea and I brought it to the market. It was only years later that FPP jumped on and started selling some. The consumer EIR 35mm that was available from the late 60’s until it was discontinued in 1999 was not Aerochrome. Although it was a color infrared, it was a different emulsion with a different color palette. It was also very beautiful, but not the same film. This is a common misconception in the public forum. This film, called EIR (Ektachrome Infrared) was discontinued because sales were too low to justify the expensive costs of producing the film. No one was buying it and no one was interested until I revived it in 2007. It took me years to get people interested. Even now that it is trending, sales are still too low for Kodak to justify starting up production. And as I understand from Kodak, the chemicals and processes and not even available anymore, which means a great cost to Kodak to start up again. By the time I started selling Aerochrome, the medium was long dead and forgotten. As people lose sight of the particular aesthetic of analogue photography, this medium will disappear as opposed to being revived. Zero demand equals zero supply. No, I think the color infrared era is over. Of course, I could be wrong.