September 13, 2012
Three years ago, I was introduced to Jonathan Singer, a podiatrist from Bayonne, New Jersey, who was making quite a splash in the world of botanical photography. He had just published Botanica Magnifica, a five-volume book with 250 stunning photographs of orchids and other exotic flowers on pitch-black backgrounds. Measuring an impressive two feet by three feet, the images were compiled by flower type in hand-pressed, double-elephant folios—a format not used since Audubon’s Birds of America in the 1840s.
John Kress, a Smithsonian botanist who has collected rare plant species in Thailand, Myanmar and China, said at the time, ”I have a hard time getting on my own digital camera the exact color of any plant in the field…. [Singer's images] are as close as I have ever seen. They look exactly like the real thing.”
Enamored by the photographer’s very first prints, Kress invited Singer to the National Museum of Natural History’s research greenhouse in Suitland, Maryland. There, Kress hand-selected some of the most visually interesting specimens for Singer to shoot with his color-perfect Hasselblad digital camera.
For his latest project, Singer takes on a new subject: bonsai. Using the same technique, he has photographed some 300 bonsai trees from collections around the world and presented them in his new large-format book, Fine Bonsai.
Bonsai, meaning “to plant in a tray,” is a tradition that originated in China about 2,000 years ago and later traveled to Japan. To cultivate a bonsai, a horticulture artist starts with a cutting, seedling or small specimen of a woody-stemmed tree or shrub and then trains the plant to grow in a certain way, by pruning leaves and wiring branches into a desired shape. The goal is to create a miniature tree that looks natural, despite the artist’s constant manipulations.
“To some people these miniature trees, which have been twisted, trained and dwarfed for their entire lives, may seem grotesque,” writes Kress, in an essay in the book. But, to others, they are beautiful, living sculptures.
Singer was skeptical of his subject at first. He knew little about bonsai. But his publisher at Abbeville Press encouraged him to photograph the dwarfed plants.
His first shoot, at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., presented some challenges. “I found it extremely difficult to shoot them,” says Singer. “Bonsai are put in a certain location, and they can’t be moved at all.” Behind each of the 25 or so fragile plants he shot, Singer and an assistant set up a black background. “We did not touch one of them,” he says.
As his style, Singer snapped a single photograph of each plant. “I take the trigger, I pull it once and it is over,” he says, confidently.
Once he saw the resulting photographs, Singer warmed to bonsai. “They are rather beautiful in their own way,” he says.
The photographer was fortunate enough to get access to several public and private bonsai collections. In the United States, he visited the Kennett Collection in Pennsylvania, the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection in Washington, D.C., the Golden State Bonsai Federation Collection in San Marino, California, and the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester, New York. Then, in Japan, he was able to photograph bonsai at the Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in Tokyo, the S-Cube Uchiku-Tei Bonsai Garden in Hanyu and the crown jewel of bonsai collections, the Omiya Bonsai Village of Saitama.
Singer selected bonsai based on features that caught his eye—a bizarre root here, some colorful foliage and interesting bark there. He also took suggestions from bonsai artists. In the end, Fine Bonsai became a photographic collection of some of the most masterful bonsai—from five years old to 800—alive today.
“Each one is a result of somebody who has planned,” says Singer. An artist sets out with a vision for a bonsai, and that vision is ultimately executed by several generations of artists. When one artist dies, another takes over. “That’s the allure for me,” adds Singer.
September 11, 2012
Since 2009, artist Jason deCaires Taylor has submerged nearly 500 statues off the coast of Cancún. Located within Mexico’s National Marine Park, his undersea gallery includes still lifes and human figures resting in “ghostly repose,” as a recent New York Times article so eloquently describes.
Some 750,000 people visit the marine protected area each year, and many snorkelers and divers make a point to swim through Taylor’s stunning Museo Subacuático de Arte, just 15 minutes by boat from the coast. After all, as Taylor touts on his personal Web site, his sunken sculpture park is “one of the largest and most ambitious underwater artificial art attractions in the world.”
Inextricably entwined in the art is science. The sculptures are intentionally placed just off of the Mesoamerican Reef. “The idea is that the sculptures detract visitors from the natural reef and reduce some of the pressure on it,” says Taylor. His artwork, at the same time, provides a solid structure for reef building. The sculptures are made of a strong, marine-grade cement that is pH neutral and attractive to corals, sponges and tunicates; they also have holes and crevices where sea creatures can hide.
This early in the experiment, it is hard to tell whether the art installation is an effective conservation tool. Some scientists argue that planting manmade sculptures on the sea floor is too disruptive to ecosystems to be beneficial, while others, who see more pros than cons, estimate that coral will grow and completely disguise the figurines within a decade.
Taylor, an experienced diver and underwater photographer, routinely photographs his sculptures to record any changes. But, with his sculpture count climbing by the hundreds, Taylor admits it is becoming increasingly difficult to monitor them all.
Heather Spence, a marine biologist and doctoral student at Hunter College in New York City, met Taylor two years ago, while doing field work in Cancún. She and Taylor got to talking about how they could scientifically document changes, such as the arrival of new species, to the museum site over time. “I was like, why don’t we track the changes acoustically?” says Spence.
An accomplished cello and viola de gamba player, Spence has a real interest in bioacoustics. She suggested attaching hydrophones to some of Taylor’s existing sculptures. The artist, however, thought it would be nicer to build an entirely new sculpture around the concept. “We decided to make ‘The Listener,’” says Taylor.
“The Listener” is a life-sized human figure covered in ears. Taylor invited a group of schoolchildren, ages eight to 12, from Cancún to his studio for a workshop. He taught them how to make casts of people, and, in turn, the students volunteered to have models made of their ears. For two years on and off, Taylor worked on “The Listener.” In late May, the sculpture was deployed in water about 13 feet deep at the museum site at Punta Nizuc. Inside, Spence installed an ecological acoustic recorder, jointly developed by the University of Hawaii and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; it has been recording 30-second clips every 15 minutes since then.
“This particular experiment is giving us a chance to track the development of a new reef. As things start to grow on the sculpture, and this artificial reef develops, we can track it acoustically,” says Spence. “That has never been done before.”
Spence plans to retrieve the first set of sound data from the recorder’s internal hard drive this fall, most likely in October. “Part of something so new is that you don’t know what you are going to find,” she says. Spence will start by listening to some random samples to get an overall picture of how the recording system is working and what kinds of sounds it is picking up. Then, she will listen for particular species and track patterns over time.
Spence credits her musically trained ear for her ability to match sounds to organisms. Snapping shrimp, and maybe lobsters, she says, should be key players. In some cases, Spence can identify the noisemaker down to the species level. “When there is enough data, you know what that particular call of a species relates to,” she says. There has been research done on damselfish mating calls, for instance. “If you hear that call, you know that there are not only damselfish in the area, but they are spawning. You can actually get pretty detailed information from the sounds,” Spence says.
Taylor is already brainstorming how his artwork, which informs science, can re-inform art. “I am very interested in doing something with the sound data,” he says. Perhaps a film.
September 6, 2012
Nazim Ahmed remembers when he and his business partner Adrian Salamunovic first came up with the idea. “We were hanging out one evening,” says Ahmed. “At the time, I was working for a biotechnology company, so I had a lot of images of DNA lying around. When Adrian looked at the images, he saw art.”
The two friends talked about how cool it would be to take samples of their own DNA and, from it, create artwork to decorate their apartments. Right then and there, Ahmed, who had some DNA swabs, and Salamunovic swabbed their mouths for cheek cells. They sent the samples off to a lab, where technicians isolated specific DNA sequences and created a unique digital image—a pattern of highlighted bands—for each of the men. Once they had the images, they added color to them in Photoshop, blew them up and printed them on canvas.
“It was a little experiment. We thought it would be cool,” says Ahmed. “We never thought it was going to turn into a business.”
Soon enough, the pair started to sell the customized prints to friends and family. The success inspired Ahmed and Salamunovic to found, in June 2005, DNA 11, a Web site where people from around the world can order their very own “DNA portraits.”
In seven years of operation, DNA 11—11 represents the two strands of DNA that are paired in a double helix—has garnered a lot of attention. Just months after the site launched, Wired magazine praised the idea: “Finally, someone’s found a way to exploit your inner beauty.” In April 2007, the plot of a CSI: NY episode, titled “What Schemes May Come,” hinged on a DNA portrait. Then, in 2009, actor Elijah Wood auctioned off his DNA portrait on eBay, with proceeds going to The Art of Elysium, a charity connecting actors, artists and musicians to children with serious illnesses. Late night comedian Conan O’Brien mentioned the fundraiser on his show. And, just last month, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was given a DNA portrait at his 62nd birthday party in San Francisco. The image was also transposed onto his cake.
DNA 11 has a staff of 50, spread between its 5,000-square-foot headquarters in Ottawa, Canada, and its 20,000-square-foot production center in Las Vegas. Until this year, the company outsourced its lab work to a large biotech company. But, now, DNA 11 has its own swanky in-house lab.
“We wanted to have control over the entire process from beginning to end,” says Ahmed. “And we wanted to create the first genetics lab in the world dedicated to crossing art and science.”
DNA 11 loosely compares its new lab to Andy Warhol’s Factory, an experimental New York studio where the artsy set congregated in the 1960s. “It provides an inspirational space for artists, creatives and scientists to create truly remarkable biometric-inspired products,” says Ahmed. (Biometrics measure physical and behavioral characteristics, such as fingerprints and voice patterns, that are unique to individuals.)
With polished concrete floors, clean white surfaces, neon accents and state-of-the-art biotech equipment, the space has a very modern sensibility. One full-time biochem technician oversees all of the lab work.
So, how exactly is a DNA portrait made? Here’s a step-by-step run-down:
Collect DNA Sample – Once you place your order on DNA 11’s Web site, choosing the size and color scheme for your portrait, the company sends you a DNA collection kit. With a foam swab, you collect material from the inner check of your mouth. (Many customers have even collected saliva from their dogs for pet portraits.) You then rub the swab onto a small piece of paper called an FTA card, then seal it and return it to DNA 11.
At the Lab – Technicians scan a barcode on the FTA card so that, from that point on, a tracking number is attributed to your sample instead of your name. The card goes through a series of washes, and the client’s DNA sample is extracted. Technicians then identify eight small DNA sequences that are unique to every individual with respect to frequency and location. Using a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), they replicate the strands of DNA that are flanked by those sequences. These strands of DNA are loaded into an agarose gel, which is zapped with a current. This gel electrophoresis separates the DNA strands by size, creating a distinct pattern. Technicians stain the DNA with an ultraviolet-based dye and take a digital photograph of it. “Every image is completely unique to the individual,” says Ahmed.
Design Work – The raw image is then sent to in-house designers. “This is where we are starting to cross the art and science,” says Ahmed. The designers clean up the image and add color. Then, the image is printed onto canvas using a Canon large-format printer. A protective coating is added, and the portrait is framed.
“We are bringing genomics to the mainstream, to people who would normally not be exposed to the field,” says Ahmed.
“Before 2005, everyone visualized DNA as a double helix. Now, if you do a Google search for DNA, you will see our banding pattern,” Ahmed adds. “We have affected the way people see DNA.”
September 4, 2012
All too often, art and science are considered opposites. This idea has only been reinforced, at least in my lifetime, by an over-simplified (and completely debunked) theory of psychology that suggests that there are “left brains” and then there are “right brains” in this world. The left-brained are logical, analytical, number crunchers, and the right-brained are intuitive, emotionally expressive, creative types. Somehow we got it in our heads that these two camps can never quite relate to each other.
But, when it comes down to it, artists and scientists have the same basic aim—to better understand the world. They experiment. They’re imaginative. And, when artists and scientists venture to cross disciplines and collaborate, magic happens. We all can learn from their example.
I became interested in the intersection of art and science a few years ago, when writing about photographers David Maisel and J. Henry Fair for Smithsonian. Both artists’ aerial landscape photographs border on abstract art. Full of bright colors and complex patterns, the images are beautiful. They lure you in, only to reveal toxic truths. You’re looking at strip mines, evaporation ponds, oil spills and other environmental degradation.
More recently, I was enthralled with X-rays of fish from the largest collection of jarred specimens in the world, at the National Museum of Natural History. The X-rays are both invaluable records to scientists, who use them to differentiate one species from another and study the evolution of fish, and dazzling works of art.
Collage of Arts and Sciences will be a place to explore this fertile ground where art and science meet. The blog will feature artists who are conveying scientific ideas and scientists who see the artistry in their work.
If you are working on a project that bridges art and science, let me know! Email me at email@example.com.
Meet the Author
Megan Gambino is a reporter covering science, art, history and travel for Smithsonian.com. She frequently interviews big thinkers and, in a series she founded on the Web site called “Document Deep Dive,” annotates historical documents based on conversations with experts. Prior to Smithsonian, she worked for Outside magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She holds a degree in English from Middlebury College.
Follow Megan on Twitter: @megan_gambino