Photo Synthesis

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

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In the beginning there was light…

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. While science already largely explains photosynthesis, it has not yet solved all of its mysteries.

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Close-up of leaf and blurry autumn colours

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My fascination with the science and poetry of natural processes has led me to make “Photo Synthesis”, a photographic reflection on this transformation of light into matter. Echoing the photosynthetic process, silver halide molecules in photographic film are transformed into metallic silver when exposed to light, bringing an image into being. We can see the forest as a photosensitive surface: individual leaves each record their exposure to sunlight. Inside these living photographs, we look through layer upon layer – plant and water, branch, leaf and earth –, spaces where ephemeral elements materialize as beautifully as in the processes of photosynthesis itself.

I chose to work at twilight, with a wooden, large format, analogue camera, on the banks of the Lot River in southwest France. I was intrigued by the moment of pause between sunlight capture and the nighttime making of matter. In autumn, yellows and ochres, visible manifestations of the light that leaves have absorbed during the growing season, mark the turning of the plants’ energies towards the earth. At this time of year, the bodies of trees are revealed, showing the tangible results of their alchemy.

The energy produced by photosynthesis, moving through leaves, roots and soil, carries sunlight into the darkness, to store, ready for new growth in spring. The cycle of life revolves. The light returns.

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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 photographer based in the South of France. Her evolving art practice explores how we relate to the landscape, and her work has been shown 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.