Photo Synthesis

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

___

___

Almost everything we see around us owes its existence to light. Photosynthesis, the way green plants harness the sun’s light energy to make carbohydrates, is the basis for all life on Earth. ‘Photo Synthesis’ is a photographic reflection on our ultimate beginnings – the incredible creation of matter from light.

6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2

During photosynthesis, chlorophyll in plants’ leaves absorbs photons, fundamental particles of light energy. Only red and blue wavelengths of the light spectrum are used: as plants can’t use green light, they reflect it, giving leaves their working colour. Each photon triggers a chain of particle transfers: water molecules, drawn up from the soil, lose electrons to become oxygen; carbon dioxide, taken in from the air, gains electrons to become the carbohydrate, glucose. This glucose provides energy for growth – in the plant, in animals who eat that plant, and in animals who eat those animals – all the way up the food chain. Science broadly explains photosynthesis, with advances in knowledge still being made (in 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy made a breakthrough in understanding the initial electron transfer pathway). Yet an element of mystery remains in the transformation of light as the source of life.

___

Close-up of leaf and blurry autumn colours

___

A few years ago, I began to explore the tangled, wooded waterline of the river Lot in southwest France. I chose to make pictures during autumn, when the growing season draws to a close. Leaves, once their days of photosynthesis are over, become golden – tantalising manifestations of the light they have assimilated. Tree trunks and branches are exposed as solid embodiments of light-made-matter. Energy, drawn down into the life cycle, enters the earth; nourishing in life and in decay.

Trees only photosynthesise during the day, when there is light, and they lose precious water in the process. However, at night, thirsty cells are replenished and trees may grow, glucose powering the development of trunk, roots, branches and leaves. I made my photographs at twilight, intrigued by the pause between the capture of light energy, and its assimmilation into new matter. Shadows after sunset are soft, and darker structures are revealed to our eyes. I made each photography with a wooden, analogue, 5-by-4-inch field camera. Silver halide crystals in film sheets turn into metallic silver upon their brief exposure to light, echoing the transformation of molecules that occurs during photosynthesis.

I chose to print the photographs onto large, aluminium panels, using UV ink technology. Reflective qualities of the brushed, metallic surface mean that as we shift our viewing position, a picture’s appearance changes. We can participate in the lively interaction of light with the scene, and contemplate its transformative role as the source of life. Metals may be immobile and seemingly inanimate – yet at a subatomic particle level, they too are in constant motion, and the existence of a manufactured Dibond panel is only made possible by the energy cycle initiated by photo synthesis. Amid heightened current concern about environment issues, an ecological proposition of the ‘livingness’ of everything, to counter the dominance of what we see as ‘living’ over ‘non-living’ matter, is perhaps timely.

___

___

Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalised matter feeds our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting a fuller range of the non-human powers circulating around and within human bodies. These material powers… call for our attentiveness, or even “respect”…The figure of an intrinsically inanimate matter may be one of the impediments to the emergence of more ecological and more materially sustainable modes of production and consumption.”

[Jane Bennett, ‘Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things’, 2010]

___

Rebecca Marshall is a British photographer based in the South of France. 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. Alongside, Rebecca’s 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 (current).