Chasing invisible light

Helmut Hirler shares his passion for infrared photography with Adrian Hatwell, discussing the messages behind his imagery and what he hopes to evoke in his audiences


Photography has ever been about more than what the eye beholds, and the art of capturing infrared light on film is perhaps the most literal manifestation of this notion. The natural electromagnetic light spectrum extends further than the human eye is capable of detecting, meaning there is light energy all around us that we simply cannot see. It is in this realm of invisible light, where infrared wavelengths go beyond our senses, that photographer Helmut Hirler lives.

Originally from Germany and celebrated around the globe for his eerie infrared landscape prints, the photographer has made a life for himself in the town of Waipawa, in central Hawke’s Bay. He has travelled extensively, and continues to do so — recent years have seen him visit Australia, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany — but it is the unique landscapes of his adopted home that most firmly hold his fascination.

“I like to show the beauty of this country on one side, the influence of humans into this sensitive ecosystem, and the remains of the recent past,” Hirler explains.

The photographer has seen a side of Aotearoa’s noted beauty that few others can lay claim to; through his infrared photography technique, Hirler captures vegetation in radiant whites, the undulating land in rich monochrome, and cloudy skylines etched in the dramatic grey tones native to this unconventional style. Painted by the infrared spectrum, the iconic scenery takes on a disquieting beauty, as though belonging to some other inverse world.

Hirler’s engrossing fine-art landscapes have caught the attention of art collectors around the globe, and have picked up a cavalcade of international awards. Long-time readers will remember the photographer sharing an impressive portfolio in the pages of D-Photo several years ago, and since then he has continued his wayfaring adventures and embarked on a number of projects. Two of these now coalesce in a new exhibition, The Magic of the Invisible, currently on display at the Taupo Museum.

The new show combines images from Hirler’s Landscapes project, as well as several from Forgotten Kiwis, a collection of images dedicated to abandoned structures and vehicles discovered during the photographer’s journeys off the beaten track. Both of these personal projects have international counterparts — he’s been working on his worldwide series of neglected constructs, The Forgotten Ones, for more than 20 years — but all the images in this latest exhibition are locals.

The rusting chassis and crumbling walls captured in the Forgotten Kiwis series contrast dramatically with the photographer’s naturalistic landscape images. The discarded evidence of human involvement is recorded in sharp, forensic detail through the infrared photography process. The thriving vegetation, on the other hand, practically glows as a result of the ‘wood effect’, whereby the chlorophyll molecules in plants reflect infrared light in the photosynthesis process, which registers as bright whites in infrared imagery. The juxtaposition of hard, lifeless structures and soft, glowing life holds an innate appeal to the photographer, as do the ramshackle buildings themselves.

“Sometimes it makes me sad, to see how people walked away from their homes and left everything behind for nature to do the final clean-up. On the other hand, I am sometimes fascinated about ‘Kiwi engineering’ — how they built machines or vehicles, far away from any safety regulations.”

To shoot his spectral panoramas, Hirler works with some very specialist gear: three hefty Linhof Technorama panoramic cameras with, respectively, 72mm, 110mm, and 180mm lenses. Fitted with ‘black filters’ to screen out any light of shorter wavelength than infrared, these cameras shoot onto infrared-sensitive 6x17cm film with just four shots per roll. With so much of the light spectrum blocked from entering the camera, the artist must work with much lower film speed and longer exposure times than conventional photography, so shooting with a tripod is non-negotiable.

After scoping out his intended subject and exploring a suitable vantage point, Hirler sets up his equipment and inputs the appropriate settings to capture his vision. Because the special filter blocks out all light in the visible spectrum, he is essentially operating blind, unable to see anything through the camera’s viewfinder. It might sound like a daunting task reminiscent of Jedi training, but after 30 years of wrangling invisible light, it’s now all second nature to the artist.

“I normally don’t measure the light conditions during normal daytime,” he says. “Only if I take photos shortly before sunrise or after sunset do I use my light meter. When I work with my 180mm lens, I have to adjust the focal difference from visible radiation to infrared radiation. This is more important when I work in short distance [from] the object.”

Having shot on the same equipment for so long, Hirler knows his gear intimately and says it is not too difficult to maintain. Luckily, infrared film never completely disappeared from the market, and supply has benefited from a resurgence in analogue popularity. But the cost of this film is definitely on the rise, the photographer notes with some disappointment.

Adventurous photographers keen to dabble in infrared photography don’t necessarily have to commit to the hefty investment of an analogue set-up; many current cameras are already capable of recording infrared light. For the modest cost of a specialized infrared filter and a little digital-darkroom know-how, an enthusiast can begin experimenting with the light unseen with relative ease.

As well as finding his niche craft extremely gratifying, Hirler also gets a lot of satisfaction at the other end of the creative process: sharing art with the public. It’s not just his own photographic works he exposes to the world; with his partner, painter Sally Maguire, the photographer runs the Waipawa-based Artmosphere gallery, which features diverse works from artists both local and international.

Of course, it’s always nice to have the spotlight to yourself, and Hirler is excited to invite the masses to his new solo exhibition, being held at the Taupo Museum until January 25. Asked to pick a favourite from the images assembled in The Magic of the Invisible, the artist points to his panorama of Rotorua’s Blue Lake, as it epitomizes the unique character of Aotearoa’s flora, which has beguiled the photographer for years. It is shots like this that he hopes will inspire in his audience a caring view of the environment.

“I hope that they will be excited about my work and that they will realize that it is absolutely worth protecting the remains of our beautiful country,” he says.

While the exhibition sees the photographer kicking off 2016 with gusto, he has no plans to slow down in the coming months. In February and March, Hirler heads down to Central Otago, where he intends to shoot a documentary project about an aid organization that originated in his hometown back in Germany.

“They want to set up an exhibition about their work to get more funding. A team of doctors is doing anaplasty free on children with deformed faces and bodies, and I will gift my work to this organization.”

The photographer also has dreams of chasing invisible light in remote portions of the globe that he has yet to explore, including Australia’s north-west and the southern Sahara Desert. Wherever his exploits happen to take him, you can be assured Hirler will remain enchanted by the magic of the invisible, and the pleasure of capturing shades of that magic and sharing it with the world.

Article originally appeared in D-Photo 70 February-March 2016