October 29, 2013
Adam Cohen and Ben Labay are surrounded by thousands of fish specimens, all preserved in jars of alcohol and formalin. At the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas in Austin, the two fish biologists are charged with documenting the occurrences of different freshwater fish species in their home state and those neighboring it.
That is their day job, at least.
Outside of work, Cohen and Labay have teamed up on an artistic venture they call the Inked Animal Project. Since 2008, the colleagues have made surprisingly tasteful prints of actual animal carcasses—scales, fur, feathers and all.
Both scientists have dabbled in art—drawing, painting and sculpting—for as long as they can remember. As a kid, Cohen even used an octopus and flying fish that he bought at an Asian market as huge stamps to make ink patterns on paper. Fish, of course, were a natural subject for two ichthyologists, but Cohen and Labay were also familiar with a Japanese art form called Gyotaku (meaning “fish rubbing”), where artists slather ink on fresh fish and press them onto paper as a means of recording the size and other details of the catch.
Their first collaboration was a poster with prints of all ten sunfish species that live in Texas, and the Inked Animal Project was born. They inked trout, bass and catfish. But why stop with fish? The duo quickly expanded its repertoire, applying the same printmaking technique to mice, squirrels, rabbits, geese, gulls, hummingbirds and a smattering of deer, pig and cow skulls. No specimen seems to fluster the artists.
I interviewed Inked Animal’s creators by email to learn more about where they obtain their portrait subjects, how they produce the prints and what exactly possesses them to do this.
As you know, Gyotaku is both an art form and a method of scientific documentation. Are there certain anatomical traits you try to accentuate in your Inked Animal prints for scientific purposes?
Ben: I don’t think we print for any tangible scientific goal, though we do print in a spirit of documentation, similar to goals of the original Gyotaku printings I guess. As we’ve expanded our medium beyond fish, we’ve been interested in trying to document life processes through the animals, such as internal or unique anatomy and “road-kill” or animated postures.
Adam: Not long ago I ran across some field notes belonging to a fish collector from the late 1800s, Edgar Mearns, who, rather than preserving a particularly large fish, decided to trace the animal on paper and insert it in his fieldbook. We were well into the Inked Animal Project at that point and that‘s when I realized what we were really doing was a form of documentation as well as art. But, in reality, these days with cameras so ubiquitous, there is little need to print or trace the animal on paper for documentation purposes. I think our prints have relatively little scientific value, but substantial artistic value. I often think about the physical characteristics that someone who knows the species well would need to see to verify the identity of the specimen, but I try not to let that get in the way of creating interesting art. I’d much rather have interesting art of an unknown and unverifiable species.
How do you collect the animals you print?
Adam and Ben: We get the animals in all sorts of ways. In the beginning we went fishing in our spare time. Recently, as word of our project got out, we’ve had people donate specimens. A lot of our friends are biologists, hunters, exterminators and people who work in animal rehabilitation; they have access to animals and are excited to donate to the cause. Additionally, there are a lot of great animals to print that can be purchased through exotic Asian grocery stores. We’re getting serious about printing larger animals, like farm livestock. We would love to get an ostrich or emu too.
On your website, you say, “Our tolerance for gross is very high.” Can you give an example of a specimen that pushed this tolerance to its limits?
Ben: My personal worst was the armadillo. We’ve had worse-smelling animals like a gray fox that was sitting in a bucket for a full day before we printed. But something about working with the armadillo really grossed me out, almost to the point of vomiting. Most mammals are squishy with decay, but the armadillo was a stiff football of dense rotten meat. It’s also a bizarre animal that we don’t ever expect to get so intimate with. This is just a crazy theory, but animals like the Eastern cottontail or gray fox are more familiar, and maybe more approachable or acceptable when rotten. When it comes to larger, strictly wild animals, things get more interesting and intense.
Adam: Ben mentioned a gray fox that we printed in the early days of Inked Animal. I remember picking it up and the juices ran down my arm. But I was so excited by the print we were getting, which I think was the first time we realized that we were on to something really unique, that I hardly even thought about it. We recently printed a very rotten deer whose skin peeled away as we lifted the cloth to reveal a writhing mass of maggots—that was pretty gross too.
You are almost more interested in prints of dismembered, rotting or partially dissected specimens, right? Why is this?
Ben: When we started to expand from fish to other types of animals, Adam and I felt excited about not just doing something unique, but doing art that was deeper than just a pretty picture. I think we both feel that there is something indescribable about the animal prints, which allows people to view them from different vantage points. You see it as an animal print, and also as a process. I like the idea of documenting rotting or dissected animals because it emphasizes the process part of the experience. People see it and can immediately imagine what must have happened to produce the image. Most people love what they see even though it’s something, which if seen in real life, would disgust and repulse them.
Adam: At first I think most people think working with animal innards to be a little gross, but really there’s lots to offer aesthetically in the inside. Ribs, lungs and guts provide very interesting patterns and textures. Blood stains and feces add color. These are the parts of the animal that are not usually seen so they catch the viewer’s attention and cause reason for pause. If, for example, the animal is a road kill specimen, whose guts are spilling out—well that’s an interesting story that we can capture on paper.
Do you try to position the specimens in a certain way on the paper?
Adam and Ben: Absolutely. We think about position quite a bit. Mainly we want to capture natural poses, either making the animal seem alive or dead. Often if the animal has rigor mortis or could fall apart, due to rot, we are limited to how we can pose them. Sometimes animals come to us very disfigured, depending on the cause of death, and we’ve been surprised by the beautiful prints that can be obtained from them.
Can you take me through the process of making a print? What materials do you use, and what is your method?
Adam and Ben: We are always experimenting with different papers, fabric, inks, clays and paints as well as different application methods, but it really all boils down to applying a wet media to the animal and then applying it to paper or fabric. The trick is finding the right kinds of materials and transfer technique for each kind of specimen. The process for bones is very different than fleshed out animals; and birds are different than fish. Having two of us is often essential for large floppy animals where we want to apply the animal to the table-bound paper. Fish can be the most difficult; their outer skin is essentially slime, which repels some inks and creates smudgy prints on paper. You have to remove this outer slime layer before you print a fish. Salt seems to work well for this. We often do varying degrees of post-processing of the raw print with paint or pencils.
What do you add by hand to the actual print?
Ben: For each animal we’ll likely do half a dozen to a couple dozen prints searching for the perfect one. With all these replicates, we’ll play around with different techniques of post processing. The traditional Gyotaku method restricts touch-ups to accenting the eye of the fish. I think we’ve at minimum done this. But we’ve employed a lot of post-processing techniques, including pencil, watercolor, acrylic, clay, enamel and even extensive digital touch ups.
Adam: There is a balance that we are trying to achieve regarding preserving the rawness of the print and creating a highly refined piece. We like both and find ourselves wavering. Recently, we’ve started to assemble prints together digitally and sometimes alter colors and contrast for interesting effects.
What are the most challenging specimens to print?
Adam: I think small arthropods (animals with exoskeletons) are particularly difficult and time consuming. We’ve come up with the best method, to completely disassemble the animal and print it in pieces. The other trick with them is to apply the ink very thinly and evenly. Anything with depth is also difficult and sometime impossible since the way paper and fabric drapes across the animal can result in very distorted looking prints.
Ben: Small fish or insects. Fish because they are just so small, and the details like scales and fin rays don’t come out well. And, insects because they can be so inflexible, and their exoskeletons are, for the most part, pretty darn water repellent, restricting what kinds of paints we can use.
What animal would you like to print that you haven’t yet?
Ben: Generally, I’d love to print any animal that we haven’t already printed. That said, I have a gopher in my freezer that I’m not too excited about because it will likely turn out as a hairy blob. And once you’ve done one snake, another the same size is hard to distinguish. Large animals are, of course, charismatic and impressive, but I also really enjoy the challenge of trying to capture details on smaller animals. There are some animals that do, in theory, lend themselves to printing. For example, we have a porcupine in our freezer that I’m really excited about.
Adam: I get excited about anything new really. To date, we’ve been primarily interested in working with Texas fauna, but we are excited about other possibilities as well. I especially like animals with interesting textures juxtaposed. For example, I think the more-or-less naked head and legs of an ostrich with the feathery body would be interesting and very challenging. But, beyond specific animal species, we’re now experimenting with the process of rot, a commonality of all dead animals. One project involves placing a fresh animal on paper and spray painting it at various intervals with different colors as it rots and expands. The result is an image of the animal surrounded by concentric rings that document the extent of rot through time.
What do you hope viewers take away from seeing the prints?
Ben and Adam: We like to think there is something in the animal prints that captures both the spirit and the raw corporeal feel of the animal. It’s amazing to us that the art was created by using an animal as a brush so-to-speak, and that there’s even DNA left on the art itself. We hope people have a similar thought process and feeling about the work. We also hope that the project and print collection as a whole serves as a way people can better approach and appreciate the biodiversity around us.
Ben Labay will be showing works from the Inked Animal Project at his home in Austin on November 16-17 and 23-24, as part of the 12th annual East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), a free self-guided tour of the city’s creative community. Inked Animal works are represented by Art.Science.Gallery in Austin, Texas—one of the first galleries in the country to focus on science-related art.
October 16, 2013
Stephen Young is geography professor at Salem State University. He studies vegetation change on Earth using satellite imagery and displays his photographs outside his office.
Paul Kelly, a colleague of Young’s, is a herpetologist. He studies snakes’ scales under a microscope to determine which species are closely related evolutionarily. His classroom walls are decorated with scanning electron micrographs.
“I saw some similar patterns there,” says Young. As a joke, last year, he put a landscape image on Kelly’s door. The biologist mistook it for an electron microscope image that his office mate had created, which got the two talking and comparing imagery. “We found that we had this similar interest in understanding scale and how people perceive it,” Young explained.
The two scientists have since created and collected more than 50 puzzling images—of polished minerals and glaciers, sand dunes and bird feathers—for display in “Macro or Micro?,” an exhibition currently at both Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery and Clark University’s Traina Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Kelly notes, “After I saw Steve’s images, I could think of things that would look something like his satellite images from knowing how tissues and organs are built microscopically.”
But what do you see? Is the subject something massive, viewed from space, or something miniscule, seen through the lens of a microscope? Test yourself here, with these 15 images curated by Young and Kelly.
Answers can be found at the bottom of the post.
1. Macro or Micro?
2. Macro or Micro?
3. Macro or Micro?
4. Macro or Micro?
5. Macro or Micro?
6. Macro or Micro?
7. Macro or Micro?
8. Macro or Micro?
9. Macro or Micro?
10. Macro or Micro?
11. Macro or Micro?
12. Macro or Micro?
13. Macro or Micro?
14. Macro or Micro?
15. Macro or Micro?
“Macro or Micro?” is on display at Clark University’s Traina Center for the Visual and Performing Arts through November 1, 2013, and at Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery through November 6, 2013.
H/T to Megan Garber at the Atlantic for the formatting idea. Check out her “NASA or MOMA? Play the Game!”
1. Macro: Lakes surrounded by steep sand dunes in the Gobi Desert in China’s Inner Mongolia (Data downloaded from the European Space Agency. Additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
2. Micro: A polished mineral surface (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
3. Macro: The Matusevich Glacier in East Antarctica (Original image: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
4. Macro: Sand dunes in Algeria’s Sahara desert (Landsat Thematic Mapper data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility. Image processing by Stephen Young.)
5. Macro: Cumulus clouds over the South Pacific Ocean (Image created by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
6. Micro: A rotten human tooth (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
7. Micro: The surface of a snake eggshell (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
8. Micro: The interior of a leopard frog’s small intestine (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
9. Macro: The Ganges-Brahmaptutra river delta in South Asia (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
10. Micro: A polished sample of boron (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
11. Macro: White lines cutting through China’s Gobi Desert (Image downloaded from Satellite Image Corporation and cropped by Stephen Young)
12. Macro: Sea ice forming around Shikotan Island, at the southern end of the Kuril Islands, north of Japan (Image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using data provided by the NASA EO-1 team. Downloaded and cropped from NASA’s Visible Earth website.)
13. Micro: The surface of a leopard frog’s tongue (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
14. Macro: A Landsat thermal image of western Australia (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
15. Macro: A Landsat image from North Africa (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
October 9, 2013
On March 10, 2006, seven months after an Atlas rocket boosted it into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter fell into place in the Red Planet’s orbit. Since then, the $720 million spacecraft has been hovering 150 to 200 miles above the surface of Mars, surveying for suitable landing sites for future missions and any evidence that water once flowed there.
On board the MRO is one of the heftiest and most adept cameras ever to document a planet’s terrain. The HiRISE, short for High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, has captured more than 29,000 insanely-detailed images—of a highly-concentrated 1.8 percent of the surface of Mars—in seven years.“The images taken by HiRISE…reveal all of the beauty of Mars,” writes Alfred S. McEwen, a planetary science professor at the University of Arizona and principal investigator for HiRISE, in This is Mars, a new book published by Aperture. “While their quality and precision are indispensable for the scientific success of the MRO’s mission, they also faithfully capture the planet’s mysterious splendor.”
“Physical processes have produced pleasing patterns on its surface, such as polygons, stair-stepped layers, flowing sand dunes, meandering river deposits, lava flows with spiraling coils, explosive impact craters with dramatic radial patterns, eroded mesas with vertical cliffs, layered ice deposits over the poles, icy flows over the middle latitudes, dust deposits with strange textures, and,” he continues, “sharp-rimmed gullies that look like they formed just yesterday (some of them did).”
The wonder was certainly not lost on French photographer, designer and editor Xavier Barral. Barral grew up in the shadows of the Paris Observatory and has been interested in space for decades. For the purposes of compiling This is Mars, a half-art, half-science glossy coffee table book, he approached NASA and was granted access to a massive archive of Mars images.
Barral scanned multiple times the roughly 30,000 photographs taken by the MRO—an equivalent of more than 300,000 miles were he to have walked the distance represented by each photo by foot. Along the way, he consulted with McEwen and other scientists, including astrophysicist Francis Rocard and geophysicist Nicolas Mangold, who helped identify and explain the geological features he saw. But, first and foremost, Barral sought compellingly composed photos—he hand-selected about 150 images to feature in his book.
Each black-and-white photograph in the book covers a swath of Mars 3.7 miles wide, and yet no two are alike in their swirls, ridges, pock marks, blotches and striations.
“I can’t prevent myself from seeing references to all of art history,” says Barral. “It is all intertwined. All these geological shapes have artistic qualities.”
The designer extracted the most surprising points of view, in his opinion, from the MRO’s collection. “What surprises me in these observations of Mars is the unsuspected shapes of the landscape, showing 4.5 billion years of history,” he says. “These observations bring us closer to the remote—in time and in space—and fuel our imagination.”
In his book, Barral wanted to replicate his experience of coming to these enigmatic compositions, unversed in the geology of Mars, for his viewers, and so reproduced the photographs at a fairly large scale, nearly 13 inches by about 9 inches, without any labels. Only in the back of the book does he provide a key, detailing the actual landmarks and their geographic coordinates.
“At the end of this voyage, I have gathered here the most endemic landscapes. They send us back to Earth, to the genesis of geological forms, and, at the same time, they upend our reference points: dunes that are made of black sand, ice that sublimates,” writes Barral in the book. “These places and reliefs can be read as a series of hieroglyphs that take us back to our origins.”
October 7, 2013
There have been some interesting creatures popping up in the Arctic. Canadian hunters have found white bears with brown tints—a cross between Ursus maritimus, the polar bear, and Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly. A couple of decades ago, off the coast of Greenland, something that appeared to be half-narwhal, half-beluga surfaced, and much more recently, Dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoise mixes have been swimming near British Columbia.
In “The Arctic Melting Pot,” a study published in the journal Nature in December 2010, Brendan Kelly, Andrew Whiteley and David Tallmon claim, ”These are just the first of many hybridizations that will threaten polar diversity.” The biologists speculated a total of 34 possible hybridizations (pdf).
Arctic sea ice is melting, and fast—at a rate of 30,000 square miles per year, according to NASA. And, some scientists predict that the region will be ice-free within about 40 years. “Polar bears are spending more time in the same areas as grizzlies; seals and whales currently isolated by sea ice will soon be likely to share the same waters,” says Kelly and his colleagues in the study. Naturally, there will be some interbreeding.
Such mixed offspring are hard to find. But, thanks to technology and the creative mind of artist Nickolay Lamm, they’re not hard to envision.
Say a harp seal (Phoca groenandica) mates with a hooded seal (Cystophora crostata), or a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) breeds with a right whale (Eubalaena spp.). What would the offspring look like? Dina Spector, an editor at Business Insider, was curious and posed the question to Lamm.
This past spring, Lamm, who creates forward-looking illustrations from scientific research, produced scenes depicting the effect of sea level rise on coastal U.S. cities over the next few centuries, based on data reported by Climate Central, for the news outlet. Now, building off Spector’s question, he has created a series of digitally manipulated photographs—his visions of several supposed Arctic hybrids.
“In that Nature report, it was just a huge list of species which could cross breed with one another. I feel that images speak a lot more,” says Lamm. “With these, we can actually see the consequences of climate change.”
Lamm first selected several of the hybridizations listed in the study for visual examination. He then picked a stock photo of one of the two parent species (shown on the left in each pairing), then digitally manipulated it to reflect the shape, features and coloring of the other species (on the right). Blending these, he derived a third photograph of their potential young.
To inform his edits in Photoshop, the artist looked at any existing photographs of the crossbred species. “There are very, very few of them,” he notes. He also referred to any written descriptions of the hybrids and, enlisting the help of wildlife biologist Elin Pierce, took into account the dominant features of each original species. In some cases, Lamm took some artistic merit. He chose to illustrate the narwhal-beluga mix, for example, with no tusk, when Pierce suggested that the animal may or may not have a very short tooth protruding from its mouth.
Biologists are concerned about the increasing likelihood of this crossbreeding. “As more isolated populations and species come into contact, they will mate, hybrids will form and rare species are likely to go extinct,” reports Nature.
Many critics of Lamm’s series have argued that these hybrids may just be a product of evolution. But, to that, Lamm says,”Climate change is a result of us humans and [this is] not just some natural evolution that would happen without us.”
About the project itself, he adds, “I am personally concerned about the environment, and this is just my way of expressing my worry about climate change.”
September 26, 2013
About a half hour’s drive northeast of downtown Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Sam Droege holds court in a lab filled with hundreds of insect specimens neatly pinned in styrofoam-lined boxes. On any given day, the biologist shares the space with interns under his tutelage and the meticulously classified and catologued insects.
Some of the insects—wasps, bees, crickets and beetles—Droege collected himself, either near his home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, or on the grounds of his lab in Beltsville. Others are sent to him by scientists at the U.S. Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, as well as by researchers and students from other institutions.
Droege is tasked with photographing the different species, and his images appear in guides, identification manuals, posters and power point presentations used by the USGS. The publications, Droege explains in an email, “illustrate everything from the general look and feel of a species to the intricate details of their legs, mandibles and integument.”
As I write this, Droege has 1,236 photos uploaded to his Flickr photostream, a number that grows by the day, and about 75 percent of those images are of bees.
Droege leads the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. In this role, he has been documenting many of the 4,000 species of bees in North America, so that he and his colleagues can first accurately identify individual bees and then track fluctuations in different species’ populations. As many media outlets have reported, bee populations have collapsed for any number of supposed reasons—climate change, parasites, disease or our pesticide use in agriculture.
To properly identify different species based, “We needed some good pictures,” he recently told NPR. “We [needed] really high-definition pictures that people can drill into and say, ‘You know the pattern of the crosshatching between the pits on the skin of the upper part of the bee is really different than this one.’”
Droege riffs off a technique pioneered by the Army’s public health lab. The Army took detailed photographs of insects capable of carrying human diseases and other pests on remote military bases and sent them to entomologists around the world for confirmation, he explains. With a $8,000 getup, including a camera, a 60 mm macro lens, a flash, a StackShot rail to ensure highly detailed images and special software, Droege takes multiple shots at different distances from a bee and then stitches the images together to create one sharply-focused portrait.
To ensure that his subjects don’t have mangled wings or matted fur (“There is nothing worse than a bee with bad hair!” he says), Droege takes bees stored in water, alcohol or glycol, puts them in a canning jar with a screen top, washes them in warm water with splash of dish soap and rinses off the suds. He then dries the specimens with a hair dryer. No need to be gentle, he explains in instructional videos on YouTube. The bees are hardy.
His close-ups of bees magnify the specimens anywhere from one to five times their true size. At this rate, a viewer is privy to all details one would see under a microscope. “An illustration of the magnification?” says Droege. “Our biggest problem is tiny specs of dust that show up on all these specimens that have to be photoshopped out, but normally would never be seen.” The photographer can print the images large-scale, about 5-by-8 feet, without them pixelating.
Droege has a queue of about 500 pictures vying for his attention. He will edit them in photoshop and eventually post them to his Flickr site, a virtual museum of sorts for both science and arts enthusiasts. The biologist certainly has a flair for the artistic. He chooses to display the bees on stark black backgrounds, as opposed to white or gray, to avoid the distraction of brightness.
“The insects themselves come with palettes of color that are naturally balanced, harmonious and draw you in,” says Droege. “The level of detail of the pictures and the offset flash lighting pops the small surface features, making visible what normally gets lost in lower resolution shots, and provides the depth and contrasts of sculptures and oil paints.”
I can’t resist saying it: The photographs are bee-utiful!
See more of Droege’s images on the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab’s Flickr stream. Also, watch the biologist give a live demo of his photographic technique today at 1 p.m. EST. Go to the USGS YouTube site, and the video feed will load automatically. If you are a Google+ user and have a private account, log in directly to the Google Hangout here.