The following post was written by Charles Falco (pictured below), Professor of Optical Sciences; Physics and UA Chair of Condensed Matter Physics.
OK, yesterday Richard gave you his version of events. Today, it’s my turn.
Part I: Making the Connections
The year: 1960
The place: Ft. Dodge, Iowa
Richard started his story ten years ago in Madrid. I’ll start mine fifty years ago in Ft. Dodge.
I’ve been keenly interested in images since early childhood, starting with an old Kodak box camera, and advancing to my first “serious” camera when I was twelve. This involvement with creating and manipulating images using various processes — photography, cyanotypes, silk screening, etc. — steadily expanded as I got older, to the point that by age 30 I owned at least 20 lenses ranging up to a 800 mm super-telephoto, as well as had designed and fabricated various pieces of specialized photographic equipment for my imaging experiments.
The infrared camera described in this blog is the most recent piece of fabricated/altered imaging equipment dating back to an enlarger I made in high school by modifying an old bellows camera.Although I got my Ph.D. in physics, and have worked in experimental physics my entire career (first at Argonne National Laboratory, and since 1982 as a professor of optical sciences and of physics at the University of Arizona), I also have had an interest in art that dates back to childhood. By age 30 I had visited over 25 art museums in eight countries, always using any free time during travels to physics conferences to visit art museums. And motorcycle museums.
Like my interest in photography, I have been a participant in art as well as an observer. In the May 14, 2007 issue of The New Yorker Magazine, Peter Schjelhahl wrote “An efficient test on where you stand on contemporary art is whether you are persuaded, or persuadable, that Chris Burden is a good artist. I think he’s pretty great.” Burden is perhaps best known for his November 1971 conceptual art piece ‘Shoot’, in which he had himself shot in the arm. A month earlier, for his piece ‘220’, he and three others spent the night on wooden ladders in a gallery filled with 12″ of water into which he had dropped a 220-Volt electrical line. I was one of those three participants.
Jumping ahead a few decades, in 1997 I was asked to co-curate the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s The Art of the Motorcycle exhibition that opened in 1998, and which set an all-time attendance record for that museum. I shared an award for this work from the U.S. Chapter of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art with the architect Frank Gehry, the then-director of the museum Thomas Krens, and my co-curator Ultan Guilfoyle.
Making a long story short, thanks to Ultan Guilfoyle, in 2000 I was introduced to David Hockney by Lawrence Weschler, who had written a story about him in the January 30 issue of The New Yorker Magazine. This resulted in the most intense period of collaboration of my entire scientific career. One consequence of our collaboration was that I was invited to the National Science Foundation in 2006 to give the Distinguished Lecture in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Zina Deretsky attended that talk, resulting in her arranging for me to speak at the annual meeting of the Association of Medical Illustrators, resulting in me meeting Richard McCoy, resulting in this blog.
Artwork in the Infrared
In the spring of 2008 I realized that since modern digital cameras use silicon CMOS or CCD sensors, and since silicon is sensitive reasonably far into the infrared (to ~1100 nm, whereas the visible ends at ~750 nm), a suitably-modified camera might allow the capture of high resolution infrared photographs — “IR reflectograms” — of works of art. The reason IR reflectograms are of interest for art is that many pigments are semi-transparent to infrared light, allowing such light to penetrate through these pigments to reveal features that are not apparent in the visible. Such features can include defects in the canvas or board (Figure 1),
areas that have been repaired by overpainting (Figure 2),
or underdrawings made on the white gesso (Figure 3).
In addition to paintings, the camera provides useful information on 3-dimensional objects (Figure 4).
However, the IR sensitivity of the silicon sensor is only one factor in the operation of an imaging device, so the only way to know if such camera would actually provide useful information for works of art would be to modify one and characterize all of its relevant features.
I rationalized spending the money for this by telling myself that, even if it proved useless for extracting useful information from art, I still could use it for general infrared photography. However, my understanding of the technologies involved gave me a great deal of confidence my money would be well spent. As a result, a technical description of this high resolution infrared imaging instrument just appeared as an invited paper in the July 2009 issue of the ‘Review of Scientific Instruments’. You can download a copy of it from the link at the bottom of my art-optics web page.
I conducted the first tests of this modified camera in my own university’s art museum, and immediately discovered interesting new information in some of the IR reflectograms. As an example, the lines in the underdrawing in Figure 5 that are revealed in the IR converge to a well-defined vanishing point, showing that this particular artist understood the laws of geometrical perspective that had only recently been articulated. This is information that no one ever could have known before.
The Infrared of Indiana
Having determined that the modified camera was indeed capable of extracting useful new information from paintings, I took it with me to Indianapolis where I was to speak at the Association of Medical Illustrators. Basically, the reason I brought it was to gain experience with it when “on the road,” vs. in the relatively controlled environment of a museum located only a few hundred yards from my office. However, I didn’t know I would have the opportunity to test it at the Indianapolis Museum of Art against paintings recently studied with a special-purpose IR camera, so the introduction to Richard McCoy and David Miller made by Zina Deretsky was pure serendipity.
The results initially were disappointing to all of us when looking at the freshly-captured images on the camera’s LCD screen, but we were very pleasantly surprised when we pulled them into Photoshop(R) on one of the museum’s computers. The reason for the difference in appearance is that the resolution of the LCD screen is ~10x lower than the resolution of the actual images. As a result, even features that are quite apparent in the images captured by the camera usually are barely, if at all, visible on the LCD screen.
Since that first “in situ” test in Indianapolis in July 2008, I have captured IR reflectograms with this camera in eleven art museums on three continents so far. One of my favorite incidents involving it was an evening talk I gave at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in which I discussed some of features revealed in one of their paintings (a Pissarro) by an IR reflectogram. I captured that image at 11:31 a.m. and talked about it at 7:20 p.m., which must be some new record for the fastest time between extracting new scientific data from an artwork and “publishing” the results. You can see this talk on Youtube, and my 2 minute discussion of the IR starts at 50′ 40″ into the video.
I should note that nothing revealed by that IR reflectogram was particularly spectacular. But, I already had data on another Pissarro painting in my talk, so this was a great opportunity to work in something previously unknown about a painting in that museum’s own collection. I also gave the audience the homework assignment of remembering what I had just showed them, and after my talk going back to the actual painting to look for the features themselves. So, in addition to extracting useful new data from paintings, this camera also can be used to engage an audience in art history in new ways.