Since the dawn of terrestrial life, lightning bolts have been the primary cause of natural fire, striking the Earth’s surface around 8 million times every day. Many animal species have evolved to react to the natural phenomenon of fire, but only humans have learnt to control it, to harness its power and to conjure it at will.
Black powder, also known as gunpowder, was the earliest known chemical explosive. Its discovery in 9th century China was made by Taoist alchemists who inadvertently created it during their quest for an elixir of immortality. The powder was poured into hallowed out bamboo sticks, forming the first man made fireworks, and used at first to frighten away evil spirits and bring happiness and prosperity.
Reflecting on the nature and form of fireworks, and the role they play in contemporary culture, Black Powder ostensively records worldly events memorialized with pyrotechnics – from cultural and sporting celebrations such as the inauguration of the world’s tallest building and the London Summer Olympic Games, to historical reenactment of the volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini that brought an abrupt end to the Minoan civilization.
With a large-format film camera, each photograph is made using one or more in- camera techniques, such as long and overlapping exposures and unorthodox combinations of focus and aperture, to select, sculpt and multiply the explosions onto a single sheet of film, which is then scanned and printed in the negative by making a facsimile enlargement of itself.
The resulting photographs attempt to deconstruct the cliché by elevating the otherworldly nature of the analogue negative, a technology little changed since Fox- Talbot made his ‘photogenic drawings’ almost two hundred years ago. Grounded in the anomalous, the reversed tonalities animate an otherwise simple reading and suggest an alternate reality that’s both transformative and familiar.
What is not seen is just as important as what is. What is black is equally important as what is white. Areas of shadow turn into milky grey highlights of absence, populated by ‘analogue artifacts’ in shapes of polygons and pentagrams, ‘sculpted’ by the blades of the aperture as unfocused light passes through the lens. Rocket-propelled explosions of fire punctuate the inverted sky in the form of dark lines, whose overlapping trajectories trace a cacophony of concave and convex arcs, a matrix of lines sharp and blurred, straight and wiggly, which appear warlike, organic or celestial in origin.
Arthur C Clarke once wrote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. He could just as easily have been referring to fire.