Reversing Photosynthesis

Billions of years ago ancient bacteria first evolved photosynthesis, a cellular revolution that transformed our planet’s atmosphere into one filled with oxygen. Today plants, algae and certain bacteria use photosynthesis to capture sunlight to produce the chemical energy found in the food that fuels every organism on Earth.

Edward Bateman, associate professor in the Department of Art & Art History, has captured photosynthesis to create award-winning photographs produced with no direct light. His work is on display at the Phillips Gallery in Salt Lake City through April 12, 2019. He writes:

“Our world is immersed in light, but its physical essence is chemical. Digital photographic processes can record that illumination, but they cannot touch the wet, chemical essence which makes up life. The images in Reversing Photosynthesis were made photographically without the direct interaction of light.

Leaves absorb sunlight and convert it to sugars which they store in their structures. Removed from plants and trees, these leaves began a slow process of death. They were placed in direct contact with light-sensitive photographic paper and left in total darkness for days to months to document this change. As they broke down, their stored light would slowly leak out to expose the paper and form images. This paper was then developed like traditional chemical prints.

Life is not a simple, binary process like an on or off switch. It is not something that you simply have and can hold on to. It continually flows through you, in and out–until you reach the number of your days. And then it leaks back into the world from where it came. We absorb life and exude life. Like a photograph, we too are materially constructed from light made tangible and solid.

For nearly two decades, my work has used constructed and often anachronistic imagery to create alleged historical artifacts that examine our belief in the photograph as impartial witness. This new series represents a return to my roots and to those of photography. While I continue to construct many of my images, these works are a new direction; one that reflects both my own aging process and mortality. For me, this is a shift from the virtual to the tangible as perhaps a way to hang onto the fleeting substance of life.”

Bateman’s revolutionary series premiered one year ago on the Paris-based photography website, L’Oeil de la Photographie. Last year his work won the Nature Prize at the Earth Photo exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society and Forestry Commission England.

Don’t miss this world-renowned series at the Phillips Gallery at 444 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City through April 12.