The View from Here
(for Christian Weber)
Poem by John Yau
I am a superior spirit
Lacking all common sense
I chime against the sky
I slip into the distance
I devour everything I touch
I throw away my troubles
I show no mercy
I surprise my own existence
My tentacles reach out
Cinders enchanting and hypnotic
I stretch in all directions
I blossom in air
Animal yawning at the end of an orgasm
I am not the apple of your eye
I prefer to dance alone
Do you like the way I surrender
Do you like the way my mouth eats itself
Do you like how I disappear
Into the future’s black mirror
I am a ghost consumed by its ghost
I am an orphan
I hug everyone, but no one hugs me
The chapters recording my existence
I have written in smoke
Peter Diaczuk, introduction for "Explosions"
In its simplest definition, it is things moving apart from each other very rapidly. In a more scientific context, an explosion is the conversion of chemical energy to kinetic energy, which is often associated with the generation of heat, light, and a loud noise. The initial volume of an explosive, whether in solid or liquid form, undergoes an exponential increase in mass as it is converted to simpler compounds in a gaseous state. These gases are not content to linger close to the seat of the blast, but instead seek new quarters further away from the explosion with amazing speed. The precise rate at which the gases travel depends upon the type of explosion, which is characterized by the chemical nature of the energetic compounds present, the quantity of those compounds, and the extent of their confinement.
Some technical terms have been applied to the rate at which an explosive wave front propagates through its given reactants. These terms afford analysts a way of broadly characterizing just how fast an explosive decomposition is taking place. If the shock wave is traveling below the speed of sound, the term “deflagration” is applied to that reaction, and it can simply be thought of as very rapid burning. Energetic compounds that deflagrate are typically called “low explosives.” If the shock wave is traveling faster than the speed of sound, the term “detonation” is applied to that reaction, and those compounds that behave in this manner are called “high explosives.” (A word of caution may be appropriate here: the reader should not be disrespectful to explosives prefaced with the word “low,” as they can be quite powerful.) The significant energy release of the high explosives and their concurrent supersonic wave fronts afford them a great capacity to do work for us. It would be naïve, however, not to respect the low explosives, which have been around for centuries and have been responsible for, or instrumental in, hundreds of successful engineering projects.
During the phase change that a solid or liquid explosive compound undergoes when it transitions to the gaseous state, the entropy of the thermodynamic system increases in a random way, which is difficult to predict and leads to the generation of dramatically impressive light, sound, and color. Of course, secondary to the explosion itself are the materials surrounding or nearby the blast, which can also be relocated in a fraction of a second by the expanding gases and shockwave, contributing further to the overall spectacle.
The amount of potential energy that is stored in the molecule of an explosive can be determined using various applications of mathematical formulae, including bomb calorimetry, the Trauzl lead block test, and the ballistic pendulum. The resultant conversion of potential to kinetic energy is what performs the desired work, such as rock blasting, mining, ground ejection, etc. It is wasteful of the product to employ too much explosive and wasteful of time to employ too little. Hence the application of these formulae.
Prior to the much more recent discovery and development of high explosives, one of the raw materials necessary for the manufacture of the widely used low explosive, black powder, became a deciding factor in trade agreements between those countries rich in nitrates and those without such resources. Some might even compare the lucrative nitrate trade of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries with the complexity and intrigue of the ancient spice trade. Nitrates were “farmed” in India and shipped to England, but they were of mediocre quality. A product higher in nitrogen existed in bird droppings, which accumulated in the very dry climates of a few islands faraway from the British Empire. For years, the Dutch East India Company held a monopoly in the nitrate-rich guano trade from these islands. America, in an effort to circumvent the monopoly and its inherent high prices, explored and laid claim to several islands in the vast expanse of the Pacific. Without the key inclusion of chemically bonded nitrogen, the remaining ingredients of explosives (black powder, sulfur, and charcoal) would not explode. Chemically bonded nitrogen, a gas in its elemental state and a major component of the Earth's atmosphere, was the oxidizing agent lacking in the explosive mixture. Thus the chemical compound potassium nitrate became a central ingredient to the process and a source of great wealth to those who were able to harness its potential.
The proper and constructive use of explosives requires considerable knowledge and skill to direct a tremendous amount of energy toward the goal of its user. Early usage of explosive mixtures consisted merely of placing an amount of the powder directly against the item or object to be moved or broken and then quickly ducking for cover. Not surprisingly, much of the energy of the blast was not efficiently directed towards its target, but instead was wasted on the surrounding area. To “tamp” an explosive was to use inert materials, like sand bags (although any convenient material such as logs or rocks would do) to direct more of the resultant energy toward the target. If, for example, black powder was being used in a hole drilled in rock for mining or quarrying, then the explosive rigger would use clay as a tamping material to fully occupy and seal the borehole. Because of this focus, tamping, done properly, was able to reduce the amount of explosive materials necessary to perform a task that had previously wasted energy on the surrounding area.
Unlike today, igniting any kind of explosive mixture over a century ago was risky business. A reliable and predictable method to ignite explosive devices eluded blasters until the advent of the “safety fuse” developed by William Bickford in 1831. It may appear to be a logical and even easy device to conceive of now, but prior to its development explosions were quite unpredictable due to the numerous unreliable methods used to ignite them. These included the use of a loose, thin line of black powder merely poured on the ground as a trail for ignition, a quill filled with the explosive powder, and other improvised methods devised to put distance between the blaster and the blast. These approaches tended to burn at irregular rates and were easily damaged and prone to water infiltration. Consider this nightmare: a long trail of loose black powder concludes at several large kegs of the same material. You have lit the trail, but after waiting a minute or so, the kegs have still not exploded. What do you do? Who would dare to venture closer to determine what has gone wrong with the ignition? The invention and development of the safety fuse made such decisions much less frequent and thus made blasting much safer, as ignitions became more reliable. The safety fuse was merely a small amount of black powder tightly wrapped in jute and sealed with shellac to prevent water infiltration. An additional benefit of Bickford’s safety fuse was its predictable burning rate of about thirty seconds per foot. Predictable fusing was a huge step forward in mining safety and in the constructive use of explosives.
The nineteenth century was an exciting time to be a chemist because of the numerous advances and discoveries being made all over the world. Countless scientists in numerous countries were experimenting with all sorts of compounds and combinations of compounds in their quest to discover new and more powerful explosives. After all, mountains had to be moved to make room for railroad tracks, and mining had to become faster and safer in order to access the raw materials with which to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Low explosives of the nineteenth century, consisting predominantly of black powder, had several drawbacks. Black powder was only a mechanical mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal. (The charcoal was black or dark gray depending on the wood from which it was made. This prompted calling it “black powder,” since the color of the charcoal dominated over the yellow sulfur and the white potassium nitrate.) As a mechanical mixture, it had to be homogenous to work properly. In other words, all three ingredients had to be in intimate contact with one another. Chemists of the time sought a better solution for the makeup of such explosives. They theorized that if the fuel and oxidizer were present in the same molecule, as opposed to being contributed by separate compounds, a more powerful explosive would result. They were proven correct as one explosive after another was discovered that contained the essential ingredients within a single molecule.
Alfred Nobel, who endowed the prizes that bear his name, was responsible for significant breakthroughs in the world of explosives, including mixing nitroglycerine with a type of clay to form what he called dynamite. Due to the success of Nobel’s dynamite, several other models of it were subsequently developed using different fillers, each with various specific properties, used in place of clay to absorb the nitroglycerine. Energetic fillers, for example, provide an additional blast effect. Between the earlier use of black powder and subsequent use of dynamite, work that originally had to be done by hand, such as mining and tunneling through mountains for expanding the railroad network, could now be done much more quickly and efficiently.
It might be interesting to note that in the historic context of the artful use of explosive material, one of the most well known explosives, TNT (trinitrotoluene), was used as a textile dye well before its widespread use as an explosive. Developed in Germany in the early eighteen-sixties, TNT’s yellow color and relative insensitivity (to exploding) allowed its safe usage as a dyestuff. (It does ultimately, however, have toxic properties and is therefore no longer used for this purpose.)
The color of the light and smoke emitted by an explosive is determined by the chemistry of its ingredients. This is a twofold proposition: the colors are determined either intrinsically by the molecules present in the base materials themselves, or from additives chosen by the chemist or pyrotechnician. An explosive containing too much carbon in the key molecules is said to have poor oxygen balance. When an explosive with a poor oxygen balance is detonated, excess carbon results in black smoke. TNT is an explosive with more carbon than oxygen in its molecules, which means that detonation is accompanied by black smoke. In some instances, carbon is deliberately added in order to produce such an effect. Other effects and colors are also possible depending on the elements chosen - yellow can be obtained by the addition of sodium salts, red by adding strontium salts, green by the addition of barium salts, blue with copper salts, and mixtures of each to create other colors.
Today's engineers still apply the focused application of explosive devices on a host of new products and innovative technologies. Reliable and almost instant automotive airbag deployment is accomplished by the use of a small explosive charge. Early experimentation with aircraft ejection seats included the use of explosives to jettison pilots clear of their planes. Explosive reactive armor (essentially sandwiches of steel plates with an explosive filler) has saved the lives of countless soilders, who would otherwise have been wounded or killed when their tanks were hit by incoming penetrator projectiles. Energetic compounds have been known for centuries. Harnessing their power, first by trial and error and more recently with mathematical calculations and computer modeling, has been a largely fruitful endeavor.
Christian Weber’s photographs of explosions freeze decisive moments to capture the colorful emission of light and incandescent particles of various explosive combustions. These moments are incredibly brief, which makes their photographic representation all the more compelling. Low explosives by definition may have a shock wave as fast as the speed of sound, which is 767 miles per hour (in dry air at twenty degrees celsius), or 1,126 feet per second. High explosive wave fronts may reach an astonishing 27,000 feet per second, or about ten times the speed of a rifle bullet. Of course it is safe to conclude that no two explosions are identical due to the stochastic nature of these events. Thus the events recorded in Weber's images are truly unique and impossible to replicate.
Excerpt from "Explosions"
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that "life is once, forever."
Time is an interesting concept. It has been defined as the measured period during which an action, process, or condition exists. It has also been defined as a nonspatial continuum, measured in terms of events, each succeeding one another from the past through the present to the future.
The following photographs represent momentary phenomena, imperceptible to the human eye.
Christian Weber’s new book captures the depth and beauty of controlled explosions that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye.
By Dzana Tsomondo
Some Appearas wraiths, twisting phosphorescent and half-formed out of a looming void. Others are roiling clouds of fire and pitch, echoes of primordial conflagrations. Christian Weber, who reveals that he always wanted to be a painter, cheekily describes the process that produced his new book,Explosions, as “painting with energy” and indeed, there is a depth and abstraction to his images of pyrotechnics.
The inspiration forExplosionscame from a commissioned fashion shoot in 2009 for which Weber decided to utilize pyrotechnics. He had been doing some “light reading on physics,” and was also intrigued by the dramatic transformation of energy that he saw from the explosions on his shoot. Though the idea of creating a series of photographs of explosions was enticing, Weber mulled the concept for more than a year before deciding to move forward with it. “If I see something and am drawn to it, I tend not to act as quickly as some people might,” he says. “The true test for me is if it stays with me for a time and I still feel compelled to do it, then I know it’s right for me.”
Drawing upon contacts he had made doing commissioned work, Weber established a relationship with a pyrotechnician he felt could help make the project a reality. The first order of business was to locate an appropriate outdoor space that would be available for an extended period of time. Once they found their “studio” in a Connecticut rock quarry and secured the necessary permits, the pair got down to business. “We started experimenting, first by combining explosive compounds to produce different colors and levels of intensity, and [then] by creating a way to control the trajectory of an explosion,” Weber explains.
It was slow work—they rarely set off more than five or six explosions in a day, and Weber points out that all of the images in the book were shot in daylight. The darkness of the backgrounds is the result of the extreme intensity of the heat and light generated by the blasts blotting out the sun.
In an effort to keep things simple, Weber used just two cameras, one focused wide and the other tight, both fired by a single remote. This allowed him to capture both the “sculptural aspect of this energy display” and a shot of the interior of the explosion for its “textural detail.” Having started taking photographs a quarter-century ago, Weber comes from a background steeped in traditional photography techniques, so his initial instinct was to shoot the project on 4x5, using chrome, while utilizing a Canon 5D Mark III as the second camera. However, after blowing up test prints from both cameras, he found that the difference in resolution was negligible, and that the digital media was outperforming film in this context. Given the brevity of the explosions, the responsiveness and efficiency of the DSLR was hard to ignore. In the end, more than 70 percent of the images in the book were shot digitally.
Rather than using laser or sound triggers to fire the cameras, Weber triggered the cameras manually. He refers to the process as “the draw.” “I wanted to rely on instinct, skill and good old-fashioned countdowns,” Weber elaborates. His remote fired each camera simultaneously, and each took a single picture. He admits there were more than a few misses in the early going, but feels the process was an integral part of the final result. The tension of the countdown, the brute force of the blast, and the raw anticipation all kept him wired into the moment, lost in the act of creating. This organic approach also meant that, as the project progressed, Weber began to operate more instinctively, experimenting with the timing whereby, instead of aiming for the exact point of detonation, he might trigger the camera fractions of seconds later. Precision was less important than immersing himself in the action.
From the beginning Weber envisioned the project as a book and was “plotting it as I worked,” he says. As the book began to take shape, he realized that he wanted to include some text: He was drawn to the idea of including a poem as well as a piece that could elaborate on the science behind the images he was creating. Familiar with John Yau’s Jackson Pollack-inspired poetry, Weber reached out to Yau. The poet and critic responded enthusiastically, contributing a poem. Forensic scientist Peter Diaczuk covered the scientific angle, contributing an essay full of insightful digressions on the history and nature of man-made combustion.
Beyond the literal flash-bang spectacle and the power and beauty of this crude manipulation of physics, Weber believes these images are about time and the human experience. “The explosions represent life. Each one is completely unique, unable to be duplicated or to recur as the same event, “ he says. “The explosions are momentary phenomena, imperceptible to the human eye. When you see one of the detonations, it is impossible to process the details. You can feel the force and hear the energy, but the visual details are lost. The photographs allow me to process the event and see what had actually happened right before my eyes.”
Jakob Schiller Interviews Christian Weber
Christian Weber makes beautiful photos of explosions. But there’s more to them than crazy arrangements of light and smoke. Webster is trying to document the notion of energy—a notoriously difficult and ephemeral thing to capture in a picture.
“I like the idea of trying to see beyond what we’re used to in pictures,” says Weber, whose new book, aptly titled Explosions, arrives at the end of this month. He started chasing the abstract subject after seeing a photo of an atom’s shadow. The photo was nothing special, but he was intrigued by the idea of photographing something that all but invisible, and he wondered how he might use his own camera to do something similar.
“Explosions became my way of using photography to see what is usually unseen,” he says.
All of the explosions were staged by pyrotechnicians in a Connecticut rock quarry. Although it appears they were captured at night, they were shot at mid-day. The background goes black because Weber had to expose for the explosion, which is that much brighter than the sunlight. And while it would be useful to use a laser or sound trigger to ensure his Canon 5D Mark III captured the explosion at exactly the right moment, Weber chose instead to depress the shutter himself. Relying upon sophisticated technology separated him from the process, he said, and didn’t allow him to have a hand, literally, in making the photo.
“I wanted to make sure the human element of the photograph was still there,” he says. “And there is this randomness that I think is important to the work.”
Nothing is being blown up in the photos; the flashes are nothing more than gunpowder and other explosives being detonated. Some of the explosions are left to find their own patterns, while others were contained in canisters to affect the shape.
Photographically Weber says he’s focusing primarily on two things. He’s trying to capture the “architecture of the explosion”—the general appearance of the smoke and flash. But he’s more fascinated by the attempt to document the exact moment all that energy is released. He is attempting to peer inside the explosion at the instant it occurs. “I’ve become obsessed with stopping and capturing that moment,” he says.