Revisit Richard Mosse’s Infra Film: Haunting Landscape
“They say that Napoleon was colourblind& blood for him as green as grass.” — from Unrecounted by WG Sebald
For centuries, the Congo has compelled and defied the Western imagination. Richard Mosse brings to this subject the use of a discontinued military surveillance technology, a type of color infrared film called Kodak Aerochrome. Originally developed for camouflage detection, this aerial reconnaissance film registers an invisible spectrum of infrared light, rendering the green landscape in vivid hues of lavender, crimson, and hot pink.
Infrared film also found civilian uses among cartographers, agronomists, hydrologists, and archaeologists, to reveal subtle changes in the landscape. In the late 1960s, the medium was appropriated in the cover art of albums by rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead, trickling into the popular imagination as the palette of psychedelic (from the Greek for "soul-manifesting") experience, eventually accumulating a kitsch aesthetic.
On his journeys in eastern Congo, Mosse photographed rebel groups of constantly switching allegiances, fighting nomadically in a jungle war zone plagued by frequent ambushes, massacres, and systematic sexual violence. These tragic narratives urgently need telling but cannot be easily described. Like Joseph Conrad a century before him, Mosse discovered a disorienting and ineffable conflict situation, so trenchantly real that it verges on the abstract, at the limits of description.
In his extraordinary series of essays on Africa, The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuściński reminds us that “The richness of every European language is a richness in ability to describe its own culture, represent its own world. When it ventures to do the same for another culture, however, it betrays its limitations, underdevelopment, semantic weakness.”
Infra offers a radical rethinking of how to depict a conflict as complex and intractable as that of the ongoing war in the Congo. The results offer a fevered inflation of the traditional reportage document, underlining the tension between art, fiction, and photojournalism. Infra initiates a dialogue with photography that begins as an intoxicating meditation on a broken documentary genre, but ends as a haunting elegy for a vividly beautiful land touched by unspeakable tragedy.
Images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.