Swiss architect Philippe Rahm finds a universality of humanity through infrared imaging

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A series of thermal portraits of friends and acquaintances capture a commonality in a world plunged into a pandemic

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

Samuel Gross, 2020. © Philippe Rahm
Lolita Chammah, 2020. © Philippe Rahm

These photographs 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 feels is representative of our epoch. The fruits of this exploration are the subject of his exhibition, Infrared, Portraits of the 21st Century, now on show at the Camera Museum in Vevey, Switzerland.

I bought a thermal camera, which is used in architecture to see if a building is badly insulated, and I started going for walks and looking at the world through it,” Rahm, 54, says. “It struck me as interesting because it shows the climactic values of a space and can be used to detect a fever. So it seems a more accurate way of representing the world today with regard to global warming and the pandemic than the photography that was used in the 20th century.”

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

The portraits show faces lacking distinct contours in gradations of red and white. The rest of the blurry image is yellow and green, the background deep blue. In a self-portrait, Rahm, wearing a face mask, stares frontally at the camera. The actress Lolita Chammah is seen standing on a beach, the horizontal, brightly coloured blocks of the sky reminiscent of an abstract painting, 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 a universality between men and women and people of different ethnicities as we all have the same body temperature; the thermal camera shows that human beings are the same all over the planet.”

Autoportrait, 2020. © Philippe Rahm

One surprising discovery when an image revealed whether a person had had plastic surgery or has an prosthetic limb. “Someone’s nose 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 as the camera picked up the plastic of his glasses.

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

Reflecting on his condition and experience made him acutely aware of the pertinence of thermal camera portraiture. “If we think of the history of portraiture, each era has its style that’s characterised by the techniques used to capture an image,” he muses. “Andy Warhol’s screen-printing is representative of reproduction in the 1950s. Oil painting is representative of another past era. Black-and-white photography is characteristic of the start of the 20th century.The thermal camera is representative of now.”

Infrared – Philippe Rahm – Portraits of 21st Century is at Camera Museum, Vevey, Switzerland, until 29 August 2021