CERN at Arles: LHC featured in prestigious photography festival

Six photographs of the LHC experiment are being featured in this year’s Rencontres d’Arles photography festival. Simon Norfolk’s series, The LHC: the spirit of enquiry, was chosen as part of an exhibition celebrating 30 years of photography at the New York Times Magazine.


Simon Norfolk’s series "The LHC: the spirit of enquiry" on display at the Rencontres d'Arles festival.

The photographs were originally taken in October 2006, when Norfolk was sent on an assignment to a ‘little known’ laboratory in Switzerland. “When I came to CERN, nobody I knew had ever heard of the place,” explains Norfolk. “Everybody I spoke to when I came back said, ‘You’ve been where? You’ve done what?’” Kathy Ryan, New York Times Magazine photo editor, sent Norfolk to ‘capture something new’. He describes Ryan’s assignments as a dream for any photographer. “Kathy has only ever given me one briefing, which is, ‘Bring me back something that I have never seen before.’”

Something new is exactly what Norfolk brought back. He proposed a photo series of ‘six circles’, featuring both the ATLAS and the CMS experiments. His photos were shot exactly in the plane of the beam’s path. “It was very important for me to be exactly on axis,” explains Norfolk. “I wanted the view of the camera to be the view of an atom entering the detector.”

The two-dimensional ‘circles’ that emanate from Norfolk’s finished works project more than just experimental physics. “There is a whole series of theological and quasi-theological imagery that has the rotational circle of life seen in all sorts of different religions of the world,” says Norfolk. From the domes of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, to Tibetan thangka and Navajo sand paintings, circular imagery is a constant. “The experiment is so abstract and complicated that it almost seems as though scientists are once again quoting something from the 11th century,” Norfolk explains. “The language has come full circle and we’ve gone back to sounding theological again, something almost from a scriptorium, rather than something that comes out of a science laboratory. This circularity is really beautiful.”

The photos are on display in Arles, France, as part of an exhibition curated by Ryan in anticipation of her forthcoming book celebrating 30 years of photography at New York Times Magazine. “The exhibition at Arles featured her best ten choices from the thirty years she has worked with Times – it is flattering to be amongst them,” explains Norfolk. Each of the ten sets of photos is exhibited in a side chapel of an old church in the middle of Arles. “Each of the photographers has one of these side chapels,” describes Norfolk. “Through the middle of the church runs a long bench where pages from the magazine in which the photos originally appeared are displayed along with documented conversation between the photographer and the photo desk.”

The exhibition will be open to the public until 18 September, 2011.


Analogue photography: challenges lead to greater reward 

Simon Norfolk does not use a conventional camera. His large-format Ebony RW45 resembles an antique, but is rather at the cutting edge of analogue photography. A working day for Norfolk typically starts with ten minutes or so in a windowless bathroom, or anywhere that is in complete darkness. His camera is loaded with a single negative, to be exposed and then unloaded once again in the dark. As a result, a ‘hyperactive’ day can result at best with up to ten photographs. But as Norfolk explains, this is more than justified: “It is the opposite of digital photography, where you shoot everything and think about what it is that you want to talk about later, with the 600 jpegs on your computer screen. Instead you take a long look around, think about exactly what you want to say, find the picture that will say it, and photograph it.” For CERN, this meant six photos of circles, and worldwide exposure.


by Jordan Juras