Celebrating 30 Years of Photographic Photosynthesis

“Ackroyd and Harvey’s works testify to the ceaseless wonder of living nature in all its responsive subtlety, and to the more creative potential of human intervention in nature’s supersensitive systems.”

Martin Kemp, Science in Culture, Nature, Vol. 403, 2001


Critic Note
By : Jyoti Dhar’s
In Context: Public Art. Ecology. KHOJ International Artists Workshop, New Delhi, India
01 March – 08 April 2011
Exploring the intersections between Art, Science and Ecology [ecology (oikos: house) = ‘planetary housekeeping’] [1]

Artist and Project Descriptions
Ackroyd and Harvey – “KHOJ court”
Ackroyd and Harvey began working with grass as a material early on in their practice; but it was some years later that they realised its full potential as a medium that could “speak on many levels.” In grass, or more specifically in the act of growing grass, the pair realised that they were able to harness a life-force, potentially unlocking its bio-chemical, kinetic and spiritual energy. Their practice involves actively generating growth, nurturing the work over time and observing its continuous progression; product and process become intertwined, from germination and growth to decay and demise, all stages inform and form the artwork. Using grass as a living medium, Ackroyd and Harvey explore the very intimate scale of portraiture-on-canvas in gallery or studio spaces, to large-scale public installations in the urban setting. [Full essay here]:

For their studio-based portraiture works on canvas, Ackroyd and Harvey chose two women from the surrounding village as their subjects and photographed their faces. They then projected these images onto a canvas embedded with millet seed over a number of days allowing it to be captured in the chlorophyll pigment of the growing grain. Over the course of a week, these temporal “portraits” began to emerge. At first the image was vaguely visible but as the blades grew and the tonal variations became more differentiated, the features of the women became more distinct. A few days later, as the chlorophyll began to senesce and the sheaves began to wilt, the image took on a more ghostly manifestation. This brought with it a poetic appearance and disappearance of the image which was timed with nature’s own cycle of growth and decay. Ackroyd and Harvey subvert the nature of “traditional portraiture” by using it in a way that engages with contemporary eco-critical thinking.
Much like Noble and Websters’s infamous “self-portraits” made from casting shadows of figurative sculptures (consisting of waste materials) Ackroyd and Harvey’s portraits are “more indexical rather than symbolic”. Using temporary material to create an artefact usually used to record a moment in time, i.e. a photograph, comes with its own irony and questions the very nature of archive and memory. It also directly highlights one’s own mortality as well as makes one think of the more abstract larger notion of our transient world.
Although questions of permanence and photographic portraiture have been around since the very first photographs captured by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), Ackroyd and Harvey go one step further by using living material, including grass blades and sunlight to “develop” their photographs and form the resultant portraits on canvas. For a given period of time, a person is actually able to see themselves reflected in nature; there is something very primal about this that resonates with the viewer on an instinctual level. It can also be seen as having a confrontational edge to it, as it literally faces us with the prospect of the destructive effects on the planet at the hands of man, looking at how our relationship with nature has gone from healthy and symbiotic towards dysfunctional and almost parasitic. While eco-politics is certainly not at the centre of Ackroyd and Harvey’s art, there are certainly nuances if one chooses to see them; a glimpse of the rural in the urbane, a connection to a past history in the form of a present reality, a shifting relationship between man and nature. In many ways, they are continuing to explore some of the questions Joseph Beuys began asking such as: “Can art have an impact on socio-political thinking?”


Chlorophyll Apparitions
Ackroyd & Harvey

This is a revised (2012) and updated version of an essay that first appeared in Signs of Life, Bio Art and Beyond (2007). Edited by Eduardo Kac. MIT Press, “Chlorophyll Apparitions” 199 – 210 pp. ISBN: 978-0-262-11293-2

Senescence is a word that has been firmly transplanted into our vocabulary. With its intimations of senility, aging, and mortality in humans, the scientific application of this word describes the process of leaf death and chlorophyll loss in plants.
It is difficult to overstate the crucial role that chlorophyll plays in the greater scheme of things. It is the green pigment responsible for initiating the beautifully orchestrated sequence of events leading to photosynthesis. The term photosynthesis literally means building up or assembling by light, and it could be regarded as the basic alchemy of all life— the gold of the sun transmuting into the green of life. There is poetry and mystery in describing the chemical embrace of light and chlorophyll. Photons of light pierce through the outer layer of the epidermis and enter into the heart of the palisade cells. Drawn irresistibly by the magnesium at the heart of the tiny chlorophyll molecules, the light gives up its energy, and in the process a water molecule is split into hydrogen and oxygen. The plant releases the oxygen, and the hydrogen, with carbon dioxide, is converted into sugar to build new plant tissue. How the chlorophyll molecule achieves this remarkable division of the water molecule, is a bio-chemical enigma, highly researched yet still not fully understood. (1)
The beginning of our artistic collaboration in 1990 was catalyzed by grass, a material we had both been working with individually before we met. At this time, our perceptions of this growing, living agent were inspired more by the philosophy of the arcane arts than the rigors of scientific investigation. Seven years later we embarked on intensive research into a specialized new breed of grass at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) in Wales, now part of Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS). Grass may be the material of our investigation but chlorophyll is the primary medium that binds us.

Early in 1997, we approached scientists Howard Thomas and Helen Ougham (2) at IGER in response to an article in the New Scientist (3) journal describing their pioneering work into a strain of grass. This strain did not senesce in the usual way and lose its green color when under stress. The color green is volatile and the chlorophyll molecule even more, so this ‘‘stay-green’’ grass held promise to an inquiry that we had been pursuing for some years in our artistic work.

Grass grown from seed on vertical surfaces has an extraordinary capacity to record either simple shadows or complex photographic images through the production of chlorophyll. In a sense we have adapted the photographic art of producing pictures on a sensitive film to the light sensitivity of emergent blades of young grass; the equivalent tonal range of black-and-white photographic paper is created within the grass in shades of yellow and green. Each germinating blade of grass produces a concentration of chlorophyll molecules depending on the amount of projected light available to it, and the strength of green produced is determined by the intensity of light received. In complete darkness, the seedling grass grows but no chlorophyll is produced; other, light-independent pigments give the grass a yellow color. But once exposed to light in a gallery environment, the grass in the yellow regions quickly seizes the available light and gradually, over hours, changes color, greening up. Kept in very low light levels in a living state, the green grass begins to dismantle its chlorophyll and, taking on a quality akin to an old tapestry, the image slowly fades away.

Full essay here: