British photographer Alexandra Lethbridge (b. 1987) has magician’s tricks up her sleeve. In her first book The Meteorite Hunter (2014), she combined her photos of mundane rocks from gift stores with NASA images of actual meteorites, creating a visual confusion as to what’s what. She continued this photographic sleight of hand in her next two series, Other Ways of Knowing (2016) and The Path of an Honest Man (2017). By leaving out information, changing the scale of an image or altering colours, Lethbridge’s photos make the viewer pause to wonder what exactly is going on. In this interview she tells GUP how NASA photos changed her view on making art, how magicians use inattentional blindness, and how we are all unable to see things that we don’t know.
Your images often use misdirection to trick the viewer about what they see. Do you remember when you were first visually tricked?
When I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I was in France and I saw optical illusion drawings on the ground. It was one of those that makes it look like the ground is collapsing. That was such a fascinating experience to me. Another one that stuck with me was an exhibition by Olafur Eliasson in Tate Modern that I saw when I was 17 or 18. He had built a massive sun on the wall. A very strong light was shining from it, and the air was humid, so it seemed like this ‘sunlight’ was warm. Visitors were lying and sunbathing underneath. That was such a game-changer for the way I thought: you can present an idea to someone, like the idea of a sun, and they can interact with it without the actual thing being there.
Are such moments of trickery enjoyable to you, or frustrating?
They’re both! [laughs] With The Meteorite Hunter, I’m fooling people but not in a malicious way. It’s just trying to keep you for a moment thinking outside of your presumptions. We presume on a daily basis about what we think we’ve seen. It’s very easy to just tick a box and think, Oh I’ve just seen that. I try to make people pause and reconsider what they see when they look at my images – for example by wondering what’s happening behind a sticker I put on the image or by looking at an image of a rock and wondering whether it could be a meteorite.
You’ve pointed out that NASA itself tricks us: to make images of other planets visually understandable, NASA processes them by altering the colours. How has this informed your work?
If you blow this idea open, it’s really fascinating. For most of us, our relationship to space is only ever going to be through images that are given to us, because we’re not going there ourselves. But NASA alters the colours of the images, because they want us to be able to look at the planets within our means of understanding. It makes me wonder about the scale of things we don’t understand.
With The Meteorite Hunter, I’m fooling people but not in a malicious way
When I read this about NASA, I suddenly felt that I had the license to create anything I wanted. Because who’s to say that something doesn’t look like that? It might seem crazy, but that’s only because it’s outside of our everyday experience.
The same thing is happening in a Greek myth about the Chimera, the most frightening otherworldly animal. It was made from the body parts of different dangerous animals. I’m fascinated by this myth, because if this really was some kind of an unknown beast, wouldn’t it look totally unfamiliar? But in order for us to comprehend the animal, it had to be made out of parts that we do understand.
Right, would we recognise it as a beast if it were totally unknown to us?
Or would we even think it was an animal? If we don’t have a system to process that information, then what is that information? We’re told it’s a beast and we’re told we should be frightened of it. But what if it was completely unrecognisable – would we think it’s a person, would we think it was an animal, would we try to communicate with it?
Your series Other Ways of Knowing is focused on the idea of ‘inattentional blindness’. Could you explain how that works?
I was already thinking a lot about how we process unknown things when I started making Other Ways of Knowing. And then I started reading about magic tricks. Inattentional blindness is that thing that happens when you’re driving to work and you can’t really say what was the colour of the car that was driving in front of you. You’ve been in auto pilot mode, and our brain doesn’t register things that are in plain sight. All that magicians do is hone in on that. And if they are causing you to focus your attention somewhere else, they can do anything they want and you won’t see it.
How did you turn this idea into your images for Other Ways of Knowing?
I scanned images and intentionally caused interferences. I wanted the viewer to wonder: What is really happening there? In one of the images a woman is laying on the ground, and another woman is holding this woman’s head. I have two captions for the image which are hung on either side of it. One is: Instructions of How to Resuscitate Somebody, and the other is: Instructions of How to Suffocate Somebody. When you’re walking around the exhibition room, depending on which caption you encounter first, your impression is completely different.I also like to conceal sections of images in my work. In exhibitions, I often physically hide parts of photographs. It feels unnatural to do, so I’m apprehensive, but withholding parts of information is what my work is about. If it’s denied, you then have to imagine what’s there. With what do you fill that gap? If you can’t see what’s happening, then how does your brain connect the dots? I was first confronted with this question when I was on a jury for a court case.What happened?The case was very straightforward. It was a Saturday night and there was a bust-up between two groups of men. The case was trying to find out what one man had done to the other. There was lots of evidence: one man had lost a tooth and the other had a tooth in his hand. But on the CCTV footage, there was a lamppost in the way for the split second when the fight happened. Clearly you can see the dots, I thought the man was guilty. But as a jury we had to ask ourselves what we actually knew, not what dots we were connecting. We had to find the man not guilty, because we didn’t know that he did it. Isn’t that strange? I hadn’t realised how close this was to what I’m interested in photographically.If you can’t see what’s happening, then how does your brain connect the dots?
The series you’re currently working on is called The Path of an Honest Man. Could you tell us more about it?
The Path of an Honest Man delves deeper into what lying is and how people communicate things in a non-verbal way. My protagonist is a salesman because he’s the kind of person who has learnt all kinds of non-verbal ways to communicate with people, in order to convince them to buy something.
I’m trying to find out what it would mean if we could work out if somebody is lying to you. That’s why I have all these pictures of test labs and laboratories, and I made a grid of images of the salesman’s mouth. But the thing is: you cannot work it out! It’s intuitive. Everybody’s been in the situation where somebody says to you: I’m telling you the truth. And you don’t believe it, there’s just something that tells you otherwise. It makes me curious if we’d ever figure out the language of lying. Would it be the same as us speaking a language like English? Could we read it, could we know it?