Swiss architect Philippe Rahm discovers an universality of humankind through infrared imaging

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A series of thermal portraits associated with friends and acquaintances catch a commonality in an entire world plunged into a pandemic

Once the Swiss architect, Philippe Rahm, first used a thermographic camera during a project for an ecological, climactic park within Taiwan, he became fascinated with its ability to capture variants in temperature. Unlike an ordinary camera, which creates a picture using light, this digital camera does so using infrared radiation. As the Covid-19 outbreak surged worldwide, he grew curious about how the camera could document this specific moment of time. Soon the Paris-based photographer began taking infrared images of his entourage and surroundings.  

Samuel Gross, 2020. © Philippe Rahm

Lolita Chammah, 2020. © Philippe Rahm

These pictures of friends and acquaintances, many of them artists and architects, grew into a series of portraits that capture people’s body heat, something that Rahm comes across as being is representative of our epoch. The fruits of this pursuit are the subject of their exhibition, Infrared, Portraits of the 21st Century , now on show on the Camera Museum in Vevey, Switzerland.

I bought a thermal digital camera, which is used in architecture to see if a building is terribly insulated, and I started taking walks and looking at the world through it, ” Rahm, 54, says. “It struck myself as interesting because it displays the climactic values of the space and can be used in order to detect a fever. Therefore it seems a more accurate way of representing the world today with regards to global warming and the outbreak than the photography that was utilized in the 20th century. ”

Climatic Apparel/About A Worker, 2020. © Philippe Rahm

The portraits display faces lacking distinct contours in gradations of red-colored and white. The rest of the fuzzy image is yellow plus green, the background deep azure. In a self-portrait, Rahm, wearing a face mask, stares frontally in the camera. The actress Lolita Chammah is seen standing on a beach, the horizontal, brightly coloured blocks of the sky reminiscent of an abstract artwork, while the architects Mauricio Pezo and Sofía von Ellrichshausen are photographed gazing lovingly at each other in an embrace.

When asked what he learned through making the project, Rahm says: “There’s an universality between men and women and people of different ethnicities even as we all have the same body’s temperature; the thermal camera implies that human beings are the same all over the planet. ”

Autoportrait, 2020. © Philippe Rahm

One particular surprising discovery when an image revealed whether a person had plastic surgery or comes with an artificial limb. “Someone’s nasal area appears blue if they’ve had plastic surgery because there’s no temperature in it, ” Rahm says. “I have a friend whose leg has been amputated and it looks blue because it’s artificial. ” Indeed, the bespectacled face of the artist Fabrice Hyber appears mostly blue because the camera picked up the plastic associated with his glasses.

Missing from the exhibition are images that Rahm took of his 29-day hospitalisation in Taiwan last December, after screening positive for Covid-19. He previously flown over for the inauguration of the Jade Eco Recreation area, a new 70-hectare park – Rahm was responsible for the particular park’s landscape and architectural design. First he spent two weeks in quarantine within a hotel, followed by over four weeks in hospital. Paradoxically, after finally testing negative to get Covid-19, Rahm was powered straight to the airport in order to fly back to France and never managed to visit the park which he had spent years working on.

Reflecting on his condition and experience made him acutely aware of the pertinence associated with thermal camera portraiture. “If we think of the history of portraiture, each era has its style that’s characterised by techniques used to capture a picture, ” he muses. “Andy Warhol’s screen-printing is associated with reproduction in the 1950s. Oil painting is representative of another prior era. Black-and-white photography is characteristic of the start of the twentieth century. The thermal digital camera is representative of now. ”

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