Photo Books

Charles Lindsay’s New Book, Carbon, Envisions Life Beyond Our World

September 29, 2016

By Conor Risch

When I look at Charles Lindsay’s black-and-white images in his new book Carbon, recently published by Minor Matters, I see an MRI of the upper chest and shoulder of an extraterrestrial being. I see a reverse-processed image of sand formations created by a retreating tide. I see birds and mountain ranges from some distant, life-giving planet, creatures with exoskeletons drifting through space, and complex microorganisms swimming across the field of an electron microscope. Another viewer might see something completely different in Lindsay’s images, and that’s at least part of the point.

“That moment where you go, ‘What the hell is that?’ I find that thrilling, and that’s really what I saw in these pictures,” Lindsay recalls. Technically speaking, what we’re looking at in Lindsay’s Carbon images are organic forms created by the reaction to stimuli—“electric charges, subsonic vibrations, subzero temperatures and infrared light,” Lindsay writes in the afterword to his book—of a carbon emulsion Lindsay applies to 40×60-inch acetate sheets. Once the stimuli have altered the emulsions, Lindsay cuts 4×5 sections of the sheets into negatives, from which he produces high-resolution digital scans. His process of applying the emulsion to the acetate is akin to drawing, he says, creating what he calls “a hybrid medium.”

The images connect Lindsay’s imagination to that of his viewer. They have carried him into conversations with astronomers and Hollywood special effects artists, and they’ve opened his artistic practice to forms beyond photography, even as photography remains central to his work. “We often talk about how we got to the making of the photograph, but we seldom talk about where the photographs took us afterwards. In this case, that has been an incredible reward,” he says.

Dr. Jill Tarter, an astronomer who has spent her career searching for signs of life in the universe, notes in her essay for the book that carbon is the “fourth most abundant element in the universe.” It is central to the chemistry of life on Earth, “and scientists argue that it is also likely to control the chemistry of any life that may exist beyond Earth.” Dr. Tarter wonders what life might look like on another world, “circling a star other than the sun. Would life evolve there? Would it be carbon based? Can we envision it in the depths of Charles Lindsay’s art?”

Lindsay’s process for creating the images grew from experiments in the darkroom. Lindsay was contact-printing various things “for fun” when, in a New York City elevator, he came across a sign framed under glass, which was covered with several layers of graffiti. He borrowed the piece of glass, and made a contact print with it. “The paint on the glass appeared three-dimensional,” he recalls. “I thought that was really interesting.”

He started working with “different kinds of inks, fluids, alcohol, distilled water, all kinds of different things,” eventually settling on his carbon emulsion process, which gave him an image that had “all these qualities that I loved in electron microscopy, scientific imaging,” he says. It also had “classic” photographic qualities, such as a “sense of light and depth, and it had incredible tonal scale.”

Lindsay says he can control the reactions that produce his images “to a point,” but that he prefers “running this line” between controlling the images and relinquishing control. “I find that’s where the most interesting things happen,” he says.

Initially he was printing the images in the darkroom, but scanning the 4×5 negatives has allowed him not only to make prints as large as 10×60 feet, but also to create animations, which he’s displayed in exhibitions. The level of “organic detail” created through this combination analogue-digital process is part of what engages viewers, Lindsay believes. “You just want to keep looking at them.”

Lindsay’s recognition of certain forms in the images is influenced by a lifetime spent “out in nature, the wilder the better,” he says. “It’s biophilia, it’s the love of nature….Whether that’s observing glaciers and snow, or sand and lava and lichens, or rainforest or a coral reef—all that stuff is in [the work].”

What others have recognized in the photographs has been equally interesting. Dr. Tarter first saw a maquette of the work five years ago and invited Lindsay to the SETI Institute, where scientists are searching for signs of life in the universe. That led to the establishment of an artist’s residency at SETI under Lindsay’s direction, among many other opportunities and new directions he’s found through his work.

“Artists and scientists each have a role to play in telling our human story, and placing us in a cosmic context,” Dr. Tarter writes. Being around scientists at SETI Institute has taught Lindsay a great deal, he says, and he believes it’s natural for art, science and technology to “exist in a smooth spectrum of experience or investigation.”

“The binder between [artists and scientists] is this extreme curiosity in how things work, what’s possible, what’s out there,” Lindsay says. “These are the big questions.”

See the story in the digital edition (for PDN subscribers; login required). 

Related: Michael Lundgren’s Photographic Fable About Time, Nature, Growth and Decay 

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