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Micro Utopias Lit By Fruit-Powered Lights

Caleb Charland's photography reminds us that it's still okay to dream our strange and wonderful utopian dreams.

by DJ Pangburn
Jan 30 2014, 8:30pm
Fruit Battery Solar System, 2014. Image: Caleb Charland

Recall wiring batteries to fruits and vegetables in high school? Well, that is precisely what photographer Caleb Charland has been doing for the last few years in his ongoing series Back to Light. Charland just released a new batch of images, shot between 2013 and 2014, so that we're able to see what he's conjured since the series' last entry.

In Charland's process, what is a quirky science experiment becomes a steampunkish form of photographic still life. Electrical bell wires descend and wind like umbilical cords in artfully geometric ways. Occasionally, Charland places these organic-electrical fabrications in the darndest of locations: the middle of a field, suspended in a tree, or hanging inside some unknown space.

Grapefruit and Pomelo Battery 2013

With the slow, careful exposure, the organically-charged light—some positioned behind produce like grapefruits or limes—are luminous in a really magical way. There is also a bit of violence. Nails penetrate the fruits, creating the anchor from which the electrical wires pull their juice. 

I asked Charland how he made the fruit battery for his Orange Battery image. "The main source of light is a light-emitting diode that is placed within the wedges of an orange," said Charland. "The orange wedges were all separated then placed on small skewers to keep them upright. The wooden skewers are stuck into a sheet of foam core that is the base on which the wedges are placed." 

Each wedge then acts as an individual cell of the battery. "From my experience one can produce 3.5-5 volts of electricity from 8-12 pieces of fruit," Charland added, who was curious to see if he could power a single LED with a single piece of fruit. Indeed, he learned that it's possible.

With exposures that range anywhere from 4 to 20 hours, it's a time-consuming process, and that's not even taking into consideration the time spent constructing the lights. Charland is clearly up to the task, though. It requires that he simultaneously work as a plant biologist, sculptor, gaffer, a Tesla-esque electric wizard, and photographer. The Apple Lamp alone (see image below) must have required many hours of work ensuring the apples remain in place. Too bad the fruits' decomposition limit their shelf life. Still, that's part of the beauty.

Apple Lamp, 2014

“By inserting a galvanized nail into one side of a potato and a copper wire in the other side a small electrical current is generated,” writes Charland on his website. “The utter simplicity of this electrical phenomenon is endlessly fascinating for me... This work speaks to a common curiosity we all have for how the world works as well as a global concern for the future of earth’s energy sources.”

Charland hopes that the photographs function as “micro utopias.” By that he means that ideally they should suggest and illustrate the “endless possibilities of alternative and sustainable energy production.”

"Micro utopias... I often think of photographs in this way," Charland said. "Within that frame, that window on a piece of the world, a harmony can exist between chance and precision. I spend a lot of time constructing the elements for each picture, a lot of time framing it with the camera, and then a lot of time exposing it." A risk of failure is always there, Charland note, but any potential success is worth the gamble. 

Apple Tree with Chandelier, Nettie Fox Farm, Newburgh, Maine 2013

Charland is also careful to remind viewers that the energy displayed in each work is "is not really viable for any sort of large scale use." Instead, each photo functions as a "non-existent place" where this energy and this micro utopia can happen. As a metaphor, the micro utopia is a good one, for it stands as a reminder that even if they're impermanent, it's still okay to dream our strange and wonderful utopian dreams.

See more images from the Back to Light series at Caleb Charland's website.