I’m taking pictures of invisible things. I’m making photographs of things that you could never see except in the photograph,” says Canadian photographer Jessica Eaton, our conversation moving quickly from art to theories of perception and metaphysics. “I’m no physicist, but I really enjoy all that stuff. Metaphorically it can be accessible.”
Photography is traditionally understood to be about capturing what we see, and it is less common to think that something can be photographed that doesn’t actually exist. However, Eaton’s work seeks to defy the very idea that photography is bound to the visible world.
“I’ve put a lot of thought into how things actually function, and have taken the most base elements of photography, and recombined them in another way,” she says. “Because photography has become increasingly automated, people don’t actually think ‘how does this work?’, but my brain enjoys thinking like that.”
In both form and content, the work is concerned with the complexity of human observation and its relation to photography. What does it mean to see the world through a lens?
Eaton’s elusive, large-format images that form her series Cubes for Albers and LeWitt, encourage prolonged contemplation about what it is that we are perceiving. Radiant blue hues glow, yellow edges vibrate, jarring bright pinks melt into grassy greens, mauve and peach expose brush-stroked surfaces, and the orientation is shaken-up as translucent cubes become trapezoids that turn into diamonds.
In simple terms, the photographs are of monochromatic cubes, with multiple exposures on the same 4×5 inch film, using different colour filters over the lens. There are several sizes of each coloured cube; sometimes the cubes are painted in greyscale stripes, sometimes they are plain, the same with backgrounds. In some the plane is tilted to change the angle, in others the film is taken out and turned upside down … the experimental options are endless.
No time like the present
Traditional conceptions of ‘capturing a moment’, are thrown out the window when you talk to Eaton about photography. “There’s such a false belief in the very nature of photography,” she says. “All photographs are fractions of time that you could never have perceived in that way.”
For example, in Eaton’s photographs, with several exposures from several viewpoints, there are multiple interpretations of space visible, which should never normally be able to exist in the same image. “I’m capturing multiple moments or a series of moments. It’s not time as we normally perceive it – we are trapped in a linear understanding of time, but really it’s our construction.”
Eaton shoots on a Toyo View 45G large-format film camera, important because of the possibilities it provides in terms of controlling depth of field and perspective. In particular the convergence of parallel lines, with the front and rear planes being adjustable. “When photographing at a 45 degree angle down on a cube, if you took a picture with your iPhone for example, it wouldn’t be all straight, so the camera is absolutely essential,” she says.
The cubes themselves are wooden and painted in white, light grey, dark grey and black, with several sizes of each. The physical painted texture is visible on close inspection, with discernible rough corners and soft lines confirming that the works are not digital constructions but real objects. “I chose a cube based on a piece of writing by [photographer] Fleur van Dodewaard, who talks about picking the most neutral form and reusing it, so that the idea can become the work,” she says. “I think a lot of the experimenting that I used to play with in the dark room, I shoved into the camera. The making of the photograph was what I really enjoyed. It was the magical part of it.”
Many of the images don’t work out – due to losing track of positioning so nothing lines up for example – but it’s all part of the process for Eaton, and with this comes the opportunity for surprise, for the very fact that they are created in the camera.
“Colour doesn’t really exist, without light there’s no colour. It’s an interpretation of the electromagnetic radiation,” says Eaton. “And there are certainly colours that exist that we as humans don’t see.”
There are three types of receptors in human eyes detecting different wavelengths of light – red, green, and blue. When these are stimulated at varying degrees, the information is combined by the brain, allowing us to see the world in terms of what we call ‘colour’. Various other organisms see the world quite differently, for instance bees see ultraviolet, Eaton tells me, with petals appearing with a wealth of patterns; and there is one species of shrimp with 49 receptors, for whom we cannot even imagine what the world might look like.
Essentially human vision is what originally motivated the additive theory of colour. Counter to the subtractive theory of colour, where you mix colours and they get darker (like pigment or paint), with the additive theory, colours are added together and get progressively lighter (as with wavelengths of light).
It is the experimental potential of this that Eaton recognises. The process she experiments with is the basis for all colour photography – three images taken with three different filters (RGB), combined to create normal colour reproduction. Each of Eaton’s images are exposed several times, and each time she uses one of the three filters over the lens, with a clean white light, the strength of which varies to control how much of each colour gets mixed in. Instead of matching up the exposed images perfectly, Eaton interchanges the cubes and backgrounds with each exposure. Black acts as a mask leaving the negative blank in that space, and white exposes the negative to the most amount of light. Multiple exposures with different cubes, positions and filters, allow the colours to cross and mix on their own. The visible lines of overlap, often mixed almost to the point of white, make the images all the more intriguing.
“I think metaphorically, it’s best to describe it like a strategy game,” she says, “I have to keep track of how each exposure will be effected by the next.” And for those wondering what would happen if you were to use this process to take pictures of coloured objects? “You’ll have to take a look at my next project,” she replies.