In the woods outside of Portland, Maine, you can find Caleb Charland tinkering with masses of wires and setting off flashing lights in the midst of a snowstorm. He’s not a pyrotechnician. Rather, he’s taking pictures that capture simple scientific phenomena, which through his lens become magical.
“For me, wonder is a state of mind somewhere between knowledge and uncertainty,” says Charland, who graduated from Massachusetts College of Art with a BFA in 2004. “Each piece begins as a question of visual possibilities and develops in tandem with the natural laws of the world.” He finds his wonder in magnetism, electricity, gravity, and flame, demonstrating them all from the woods surrounding his New England workshop. In one image, he attaches a dozen iron nails to pieces of string, so they appear to float suspended around a horseshoe magnet. In another, he takes a long-exposure shot while attempting to steer a rowboat directly at the moon, which ends up looking like a moth darting over the boat’s prow.
Particularly awesome are Charland’s experiments with fruit- and vegetable-powered lamps, a take on the old science fair standard. (Quick refresher: The acidity in fruit interacts with metal, generating an electrical current.) For one photograph, he wired 300 apples from his orchard to a single household floor lamp, capturing its organically powered glow as dusk set. According to Discovery, Charland spent 12 straight hours staging the photograph, inserting a zinc nail into each apple (still on the tree) and connecting it to the lamp via a copper wire. Another image parodies still lifes of the Old Masters, with baskets of potatoes and lemons arranged artfully on a farmhouse table, trailing dozens of copper wires. Other “alternative batteries” include vats of vinegar and stacks of quarters.
“By exploring the world at hand, from the basement to the backyard, I have found a resonance in things,” writes the young photographer. “An energy vibrates in that space between our perceptions of the world and the potential the mind senses for our interventions within the world.” It’s hard not to get swept up in Charland’s wonder. His photographs capture the jubilance of discovery, in anything from a backyard rocket experiment to seeing the Aurora Borealis for the first time. We get the sense that for Charland, the camera is less of an art form than a tool–a way of providing proof, or evidence, of his discoveries.