Photo Synthesis

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photo– (prefix) : produced by light
synthesis (noun) : production of a substance from simpler materials after a chemical reaction

Green plants evolved to harness sunlight to feed themselves, through the process of photosynthesis. The energy that they create and store, born from the sun, supports all life on earth.

During the day, chlorophyll, in the leaves of green plants, absorbs photons, fundamental particles of light energy. These in turn power a series of chemical reactions that, from the raw materials of water and carbon dioxide, make glucose molecules. At night, when photosynthesis is not possible, plants use this glucose to grow. The nutrients formed, in both life and decay, are consumed by insects, animals and other plants, transporting this energy along the entire food chain. Thus, we are all linked to an incredible alchemy, to which green plants hold the secret: the fixing of impalpable light to create living ecosystems.

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Close-up of leaf and blurry autumn colours

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“Photo Synthesis” is a photographic reflection on the transformation of light into matter. Just as the forest is a photosensitive surface, with individual leaves each recording their exposure to sunlight, silver halide molecules in photographic film are transformed into metallic silver when exposed to light, and I chose to work with silver-based, plate film and a wooden field camera.

Over a period of years, I travelled to the meandering Lot River in southwest France in autumn. Yellowing leaves, manifestations of the light absorbed during the growing season, mark the turning of trees’ energies towards the earth. As leaves drop, the trunks and branches -products of the trees’ alchemy- are unveiled. Intrigued by the moment of pause between sunlight capture and the nighttime making of matter, I worked at twilight. Under high banks, the deep, dark river moves slowly, weaving its reflections among the trees in an entanglement of air, water, light and vegetation that is the source of life.

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Printed on large, brushed aluminum panels with UV ink, the photographs change in appearance as we shift our viewing position. This enables an interaction between the spectator, the ambient light and the scene, bringing it to life before our eyes. Presenting these organic subjects on metal – a material that is paradoxically immobile and apparently inanimate – draws focus to the importance of light, as well as the vitality present in all the matter that surrounds us.

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Rebecca Marshall is a British fine art photographer based in the South of France. Her practice explores the landscape and how we relate to it, and her work has been exhibited at Fotofestival Nuremberg (solo exhibition, 2021), BJP OpenWalls Arles (finalist, 2019) and Postcards from Europe, Cambridge University (2022). Her portraits and reportage are regularly commissioned by clients including the New York Times, Sunday Times magazine and Die Zeit, and she is represented by agency Laif.