In a fascinating interview, Designer and Educator Joseph Giacomin walks us through Thermal Imaging and explains why it’s likely we may see more of this kind of imagery in the future
Joseph Giacomin’s images are an explosion of colour, literally a vision of energy – somewhere between crayon, lurid watercolour or ink squeezed out of the tube. Giacomin is Director of the Human Centred Design Institute (HCDI) at Brunel University London. His bio at Brunel highlights his research in the area of “perception enhancement”. Recently this has included examining “a new design approach for achieving energy and carbon emissions reduction through perceptual characteristics which stimulate emotion and emotional intelligence.” Giacomin and his team have called it Energy Sixth Sense Design, and as he explains in the below the thermal imaging reveals the “ghost” of energy wastage. His take on photography feels like it is very much influenced by design, how bodies interact with objects an space, and his interest in French philosopher Merleau-Ponty is no surprise as the Frenchman was one of the first thinkers in the 20th Century to highlight the body (rather than simply the head) as vehicle which helps us perceive and think with the world around us (note how you are sitting, looking, your hands, your bodily habit of reading and absorbing information in the environment surrounding you).
Giacomin’s image-making is a Futurism where familiar visual forms have been transformed into colour, into a different channel of perception. In commercial terms you can see why this kid of photography would have currency in energy and technology sector but also any campaign that using the drama of a more intimate sensory communication. Giacomin’s work is a compelling exploration of some key themes we will be looking at in the next few months around colour, photography as information, and our changing relationship with objects, people and the space around us.
A shot of a single object that expresses a powerful memory/event?
Few events in life can compare to the birth of a child. When my boy Davide arrived I simply could not resist having my thermal camera by my side to try to record the joy of the first days…
Three books that have inspired you?
Mario Giacomelli by Alistair Crawford, Phaidon, 2001. A Theory of Fun by Ralph Koster, Paraglyph Press, 2005. Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Routledge Classics, 2007.
Favourite photo you have taken?
It is really, really hard to narrow down to a single favourite thermal photo because I love them all. Nevertheless, perhaps the shot of the London taxi in front of the Royal Albert Hall ranks among my top five. I love the fiery trail of the taxi as it drives by, and the lovely thermal contrasts caused by the warm interior of the Royal Albert Hall on a cold winter’s day. I always smile when I look at this shot because I did not expect anything from it initially. As often happens, a couple of quick shots were taken to check the contrast in the local environment, then when I later looked at the images carefully I noted lots of lovely details which I would have struggled to shoot if I had been out that day to find them…
The photographer who has inspired me the most is probably Mario Giacomelli. No other human being has used a camera to paint lines as he has, and probably no other photographer has seen the world as lines, edges and geometries to the same degree. Giacomelli has shown us our world from a different point of view, something which I myself try very hard to emulate.
What is Thermography ? What kind of ‘camera’ do you use? What are its challenges?
Thermography is the capturing of the thermal radiation which is emitted from things in proportion to their temperature. Engineers use it to measure the spread of heat in some machine, or the loss of heat from something like a house. Since the frequencies of thermal radiation are different from those of light, the CCD elements of thermal cameras are based on a very different technology. Basically, you can think of each pixel as a tiny electrical thermometer which measures the heat produced by the thermal radiation which hits it. I use an FLIR T360 thermal camera whose sensor provides 360×240 pixels of temperature.
In terms of challenges the most obvious one is the cost, which for a 360×240 pixel thermal camera like mine is around 12,000 to 16,000 pounds. At current prices it is difficult to purchase and maintain a thermal camera. A more intellectually stimulating challenge is however the creative use which can be achieved. Heat is a very different creature from colour, thus thermal photographs have very different characteristics with respect to optical photographs. I find that thermal photographs share some features with black-and-white photos since you cannot capture subtle variations in colour. On the other hand, thermal photos reveal raw physical heat and energy in a way which black-and-white photos can’t. There is something very physical, bodily and phenomenological about thermal photographs. Form and gesture come through in a way which can’t be captured with optical photographs due to the many details which complicate and hide the physical posture and muscle tension.
What is it used for? Do clients/end-users get to see this imagery or is it a research tool?
Thermal photography is still used mostly by scientists and engineers who “measure” things rather than “shoot” things. With thousands and thousands of thermal cameras in circulation, I am always amazed by how few people realise that the machine can be used for expressive purposes, or, even better, as an art form.
Where does this kind of image-making sit in relation to other kinds of photography? Does it have an aesthetic as well as a function?
In many ways thermal photography is still in its infancy. Like any other medium it needs to be seen, digested and understood by people, and this process of cultural assimilation has only just started. I feel that thermal photography provides a raw, physical and phenomenological aesthetic which captures the living energy of people and animals. I think that upon first contact many people don’t get excited about thermal photographs because they don’t find in them the colour variations of normal photographs, but in my opinion this is a really big shame, because it is a case of “looking” but not “seeing”.
Does it relate to your current design work around Energy Sixth Sense?
Yes, very much so. Energy Sixth Sense Design is an approach in which I try to stimulate people to achieve energy savings by making energy usage more obvious to see and understand. Energy Sixth Sense Design is all about revealing the “ghost” of energy usage. In recent years I have incorporated thermal images into a number of products and displays because there is nothing better than a thermal photograph to stimulate curiosity about heat and energy.
You are part of a group called ‘Perception Enhancement Research’. Could you explain a little about this work?
Perception enhancement research is multi-disciplinary, involving artificial intelligence, branding, cognitive psychology, design, digital signal processing, philosophy, psychophysics and receptor physiology. In its simplest forms it is about making things easy to understand. If the vibration from a car’s steering wheel helps the driver to understand that the road is wet, life becomes a lot easier. In its more advanced forms it is a matter of revealing “ghosts”. Humanity has invented lots of things which can be harmful but which people cannot see, hear or feel. Human biological evolution has not had enough time to keep up with things like air pollution, electrosmog or the usage on a vast scale of heat and energy which leads to global warming. When directed towards these causes, perception enhancement becomes a way of revealing what is happening and hopefully doing something about it…
The thermographic image conveys certain kinds of information, do you think in the future we will be used to seeing more of this kind of imagery that delivers information/data, visually?
Absolutely! People are creatures of curiosity and will thus always try to see more of their world. Seeing heat like some animals do is simply another curiosity which people will develop in the coming years. I am sure that thermal photographs will one day be as common as black-and-whites are today.
To see more of Joseph Giacomin’s work on Image Source click here