The Amazon’s highway through hell – Richard Mosse’s best photograph | Art and design


This humble image is perhaps not as immediately striking as some of my others. It’s quite subdued and it almost didn’t happen at all. I made it while travelling along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which was built by the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1970s, through the heart of the rainforest, in order to “develop” it. In fact, human development and cultivation have existed in the Amazon for millennia – indigenous ways of living alongside nature rather than dominating it. The road’s construction brought widespread ecocide that continues unchecked. My recent work in the Brazilian Amazon is, in many ways, a portrait of this road and its devastating impact on the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

After Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, millions of his supporters in the Amazon felt encouraged by his government to clear the land for cattle pasture, soya bean fields, and other forms of agribusiness. Burning kills everything, including species we haven’t even heard of yet. Driving down the Trans-Amazonian often felt like passing through hell.

I had procured a rare stash of Kodak HIE high speed infrared 8x10in sheet film from a dealer in New York. This black and white stock was discontinued in 1999 and lacks what’s called an anti-halation layer in the emulsion. That means it has a wonderful, glowy, poetic quality that old black and white photography used to have before, I think, the 1960s, when anti-halation layers became commonplace. When you photograph trees with this film it reveals the infrared light reflected off chlorophyll in foliage. The healthier the plant, the more infrared light it reflects. The rainforest is full of chlorophyll, of course – it’s what converts carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into carbon in biomass. When the forest is burned, that carbon is released en masse. Since the Amazon has, according to studies, recently become a net producer of carbon dioxide, due to the sheer scale of deforestation, the film seemed an especially appropriate and expressive medium for attempting to represent global heating.

This particular film is notoriously sensitive to heat and humidity though. So bringing it into the Amazon to document the burning rainforest was almost a fool’s errand, yet that environmental degradation is also expressed in the materiality of the film’s emulsion, in all the fingerprints, tears, scratches, fogging and blotches. These artefacts are the result of extreme heat, and point to the climate crisis – and obliquely, for me, even to the end of the world.

You’re meant to expose the film in strong direct sunlight, and when we approached those beautiful palms in the blazing late afternoon sunshine, the scene looked so pristine and untouched that I asked the driver to stop. I set up my large-format wooden 8x10in bellows camera on a tripod on the back of the truck. That only takes five minutes or so but by the time I was ready, the sun slipped away, leaving a brooding, primordial twilight.

Since I was working with this unicorn film medium, I was reluctant to waste a sheet and almost put the camera away. But something told me to take the shot anyway. I made a four-second exposure: the film is incredibly slow. I was holding my breath and trying to stand as still as possible in order to prevent the truck’s suspension from blurring the image. Back in my studio, a guy showed me how to process the film slower than normal, in a developing fluid diluted by a factor of 20, allowing the subtle shadow tonality to emerge. The resulting negative was incredibly thin and I almost threw it away. But my studio manager put it on the scanner some months later and this haunting image emerged.

What it shows is palm trees, first domesticated thousands of years ago by Indigenous people, cultivated in groves like this one deep in the forest. That’s why I think it’s an important photograph, but easily overlooked or not understood. The print’s tonality has a brooding beauty, yet the leaves of the palms hint towards a lighter tone. The infrared is showing but not in a spectacular way. It’s an analogue photograph that carries an oddly spectral quality. I printed it at a smaller scale, 16 x 20in, and gold-toned the silver gelatin fibre paper, giving the blacks and highlights special subtlety. I feel it’s the kind of photograph I’ll never be able to make again, one of those very rare, magical moments of grace that happen in the course of the artistic process. That makes me anxious, as it isn’t easy to repeat your best work. It almost seems to make itself when it happens – and you have no idea how it came into the world.

Richard Mosse’s CV

Richard Mosse.
Richard Mosse. Photograph: Rose Liang

Born: Ireland, 1980.
Trained: MRes in Cultural Studies & Humanities, London Consortium; PGDip in Fine Art, Goldsmiths, London; MFA in Photography, Yale University.
Influences: “Claudia Andujar, JG Ballard, Hubert Butler, JM Coetzee, Robert Flaherty, Ori Gersht, Paul Graham, Werner Herzog, Ryszard Kapuściński, WG Sebald, Thomas Struth.”
High point: “The Irish Pavilion afterparty at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013.”
Low point: “The Battle of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2012.”
Top tip: “You miss every shot you don’t take (apols to Wayne Gretzky).”

Richard Mosse: Broken Spectre is at 180 The Strand, London, until 30 December