May 3, 2013
It started with hair. Donning a pair of rubber gloves, Heather Dewey-Hagborg collected hairs from a public bathroom at Penn Station and placed them in plastic baggies for safe keeping. Then, her search expanded to include other types of forensic evidence. As the artist traverses her usual routes through New York City from her home in Brooklyn, down sidewalks onto city buses and subway cars—even into art museums—she gathers fingernails, cigarette butts and wads of discarded chewing gum.
Do you get strange looks? I ask, in a recent phone conversation. “Sometimes,” says Dewey-Hagborg. “But New Yorkers are pretty used to people doing weird stuff.”
Dewey-Hagborg’s odd habit has a larger purpose. The 30-year-old PhD student, studying electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, extracts DNA from each piece of evidence she collects, focusing on specific genomic regions from her samples. She then sequences these regions and enters this data into a computer program, which churns out a model of the face of the person who left the hair, fingernail, cigarette or gum behind.
It gets creepier.
From those facial models, she then produces actual sculptures using a 3D printer. When she shows the series, called “Stranger Visions,” she hangs the life-sized portraits, like life masks, on gallery walls. Oftentimes, beside a portrait, is a Victorian-style wooden box with various compartments holding the original sample, data about it and a photograph of where it was found.
Rest assured, the artist has some limits when it comes to what she will pick up from the streets. Though they could be helpful to her process, Dewey-Hagborg refuses to swipe saliva samples and used condoms. She tells me she has had the most success with cigarette butts. “They [smokers] really get their gels into that filter of the cigarette butt,” she says. “There just tends to be more stuff there to actually pull the DNA from.”
Dewey-Hagborg takes me step-by-step through her creative process. Once she collects a sample, she brings it to one of two labs—Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology lab in Brooklyn, or one on campus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (She splits her time between Brooklyn and upstate New York.) Early on in the project, the artist took a crash course in molecular biology at Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology lab in Brooklyn, where she learned about DNA extraction and a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). She uses standard DNA extraction kits that she orders online to analyze the DNA in her samples.
If the sample is a wad of chewing gum, for example, she cuts a little piece off of it, then cuts that little piece into even smaller pieces. She puts the tiny pieces into a tube with chemicals, incubates it, puts it in a centrifuge and repeats, multiple times, until the chemicals successfully extract purified DNA. After that, Dewey-Hagborg runs a polymerase chain reaction on the DNA, amplifying specific regions of the genome that she’s targeted. She sends the
mitochondrial amplified DNA (from both mitochondria and the cells’ nuclei) to a lab to get sequenced, and the lab returns about 400 base pair sequences of guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine (G, A, T and C).
Dewey-Hagborg then compares the sequences returned with those found in human genome databases. Based on this comparison, she gathers information about the person’s ancestry, gender, eye color, propensity to be overweight and other traits related to facial morphology, such as the space between one’s eyes. “I have a list of about 40 or 50 different traits that I have either successfully analyzed or I am in the process of working on right now,” she says.
Dewey-Hagborg then enters these parameters into a computer program to create a 3D model of the person’s face.” Ancestry gives you most of the generic picture of what someone is going to tend to look like. Then, the other traits point towards modifications on that kind of generic portrait,” she explains. The artist ultimately sends a file of the 3D model to a 3D printer on the campus of her alma mater, New York University, so that it can be transformed into sculpture.
There is, of course, no way of knowing how accurate Dewey-Hagborg’s sculptures are—since the samples are from anonymous individuals, a direct comparison cannot be made. Certainly, there are limitations to what is known about how genes are linked to specific facial features.”We are really just starting to learn about that information,” says Dewey-Hagborg. The artist has no way, for instance, to tell the age of a person based on their DNA. “For right now, the process creates basically a 25-year-old version of the person,” she says.
That said, the “Stranger Visions” project is a startling reminder of advances in both technology and genetics. “It came from this place of noticing that we are leaving genetic material everywhere,” says Dewey-Hagbog. “That, combined with the increasing accessibility to molecular biology and these techniques means that this kind of science fiction future is here now. It is available to us today. The question really is what are we going to do with that?”
Hal Brown, of Delaware’s medical examiner’s office, contacted the artist recently about a cold case. For the past 20 years, he has had the remains of an unidentified woman, and he wondered if the artist might be able to make a portrait of her—another clue that could lead investigators to an answer. Dewey-Hagborg is currently working on a sculpture from a DNA sample Brown provided.
“I have always had a love for detective stories, but never was part of one before. It has been an interesting turn for the art to take,” she says. “It is hard to say just yet where else it will take me.”
Dewey-Hagborg’s work will be on display at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on May 12. She is taking part in a policy discussion at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on June 3 and will be giving a talk, with a pop-up exhibit, at Genspace in Brooklyn on June 13. The QF Gallery in East Hampton, Long Island, will be hosting an exhibit from June 29-July 13, as will the New York Public Library from January 7 to April 2, 2014.
Editor’s Note: After getting great feedback from our readers, we clarified how the artist analyzes the DNA from the samples she collects.
February 26, 2013
Mark Laita captured plenty of photographs of snakes striking, their mouths agape, in the making of his new book, Serpentine. But, it wasn’t these aggressive, fear-inducing—and in his words, “sensational”—images that he was interested in. Instead, the Los Angeles-based photographer focused on the graceful contortions of the reptiles.
“It is not a snake book,” says Laita. As he explained to me in a phone interview, he had no scientific criteria for selecting the species he did, though herpetologists and snake enthusiasts will surely perk up when they see the photographs. “Really, it is more about color, form and texture,” he says. “For me, a snake does that beautifully.”
Over the course of the project, Laita visited zoos, breeders, private collections and antivenom labs in the United States and Central America to stage shoots of specimens he found visually compelling. “I would go to a place looking for this species and that species,” he says. “And, once I got there, they had 15 or 20 others that were great too.” If a particular snake’s colors were muted, Laita would ask the owner to call him as soon as the animal shed its skin. “Right after they shed they would be really beautiful. The colors would be more intense,” he says.
At each site, Laita laid a black velvet backdrop on the floor. Handlers would then guide each snake, mostly as a protective measure, and keep it on the velvet, while the photographer snapped away with an 8 by 10 view camera and a Hasselblad. “By putting it on a black background, it removes all of the variables. It makes it just about the snake,” says Laita. “If it is a red snake in the shape of a figure eight, all you have is this red swipe of color.”
Without much coaxing, the snakes curved and coiled into question marks, cursive letters and gorgeous knots. ”It is as if these creatures are—to their core—so inherently beautiful that there is nothing they can do, no position they can take, that fails to be anything but mesmerizing,” writes Laita in the book’s prologue.
For Serpentine, the photographer hand-selected nearly 100 of his images of vipers, pythons, rattlesnakes, cobras and kingsnakes—some harmless, some venomous, but all completely captivating. He describes the collection as the “ultimate ‘look, but don’t touch’ scenario.”
In his career, marked with the success of having his work exhibited in the United States and Europe, Laita has photographed flowers, sea creatures and Mexican wrestlers. “They’re all interesting, whether it’s in a beautiful, outrageous or unusual way,” he says, of his diverse subjects. So, why snakes then? ”Attraction and repulsion. Passivity and aggression. Allure and danger. These extreme dichotomies, along with the age-old symbolism connected with snakes, are what first inspired me to produce this series,” writes Laita in the prologue. “Their beauty heightens the danger. The danger amplifies their beauty.”
Laita embarked on the project without any real phobia of snakes. “I used to catch them as a kid all of the time. I grew up in the Midwest where it is pretty hard to find a snake that is going to do too much damage to you,” he says. If he comes across a rattlesnake while hiking in his now home state of California, his first impulse is still to try to grab it, though he knows better. Many of the exotic snakes Laita photographed for Serpentine are easily capable of killing a human. “I probably have a little more fear of snakes now after dealing with some of the species I dealt with,” he says.
He had a brush with this fear when photographing a king cobra, the longest venomous snake in the world, which measures up to 18 feet. “It is kind of like having a lion in the room, or a gorilla,” says Laita. “It could tear apart the room in second flats if it wanted to.” Although Laita photographed the cobra while it was enclosed in a plexiglass box, during the shoot it “got away from us,” he says. It escaped behind some cabinets at the Florida facility, “and we couldn’t find it for awhile.”
He’s also had a close encounter with a deadly black mamba while photographing one at a facility in Central America. “It was a very docile snake,” he recalls. “It just happened to move close to my feet at some point. The handler brought his hook in to move the snake, and he inadvertently snagged the cord from my camera. That scared the snake, and then it struck where it was warm. That happened to be the artery in my calf.” Smithsonian contributing writer Richard Conniff shares more gory details on his blog, Strange Behaviors. Apparently, blood was just gushing from the bite (“His sock was soaked and his sneaker was filled with blood,” writes Conniff), and the photographer said the swollen fang marks “hurt like hell that night.”
Obviously, Laita lived to tell the tale. “It was either a ‘dry bite,’ which is rare, or I bled so heavily that the blood pushed the venom out,” he explained in a publicity interview. “All I know is I was unlucky to be bitten, lucky to have survived, and lucky again to have unknowingly snapped a photo of the actual bite!”
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February 20, 2013
Thomas Shahan came eye to eye with a jumping spider in his backyard about seven years ago when he was living and attending high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since that first encounter, he has been “smitten,” according to a December 2011 spread of his macrophotography in National Geographic. “I began learning about their names and their ways, then looking for them in local parks and reserves like the Oxley Nature Center,” he wrote in the magazine.
For the past seven years, Shahan has developed a hobby of photographing arthropods—insects, such as robber flies and horse flies, and spiders—in his native Oklahoma. He captures their eyes and hairs in such colorful and glistening detail that his images, shared on Flickr, have been featured in Popular Photography, National Geographic and on NBC’s Today Show. (In fact, if you look up “jumping spider” on Wikipedia, you’ll even see, at the top of the page, a close-up of an adult male Phidippus audax jumping spider taken by Shahan.)
“I photograph arthropods because I love them and I want others to love them as well,” Shahan explained to me in an email. “I find them compelling. They are complex, fascinating and diverse animals that are all too often overlooked and unappreciated.”
Shahan prefers to shoot his subjects in their natural environs. “Now that I know where they are—their silhouettes are often visible through the leaves they perch upon—I can spot them quickly,” he wrote in National Geographic. Only occasionally does he bring his bugs indoors to stage them on a coffee table or other surface. Either way, “My subjects are always returned to where they are found and fed for their services if at all possible,” he told me.
Shahan’s ability to clearly capture individual spines on the legs of teensy-weensy spiders (jumping spiders measure anywhere from one to 22 millimeters in length) and the metallic sheen of their eyes might suggest that he uses fancy, top-of-the-line equipment. But, the photographer actually takes a do-it-yourself approach. “You can do a lot with a little,” says the 2011 graduate of University of Oklahoma, in printmaking, on his personal Web site. Currently, he uses a modestly priced Pentax DSLR camera with a set of modified extension tubes, a reversed 50-millimeter prime lens (a garage sale find!) and a diffused (and duct taped) homemade flash for lighting.
The macrophotographer is especially interested in the eyes of arthropods—and it’s the creatures’ eyes that attract the attention of viewers. To look into the face of creatures as small as a 4-millimeter jumping spider and “see yourself reflected in their large glossy eyes is incredibly humbling. To know they’ve evolved relatively little in millions of years is absolutely fascinating to me too; they’ve had those wonderful eyes for a long, long time,” said Shahan in an email. ”Additionally, from a photographic standpoint, the arthropod portraiture anthropomorphizes them considerably. To get down low and look up into their faces and eyes changes our usual perspective and has a propagandistic quality to it making them seem more important and powerful than us.”
In changing our visual perspective, Shahan ultimately wants to change our general feelings about bugs. ”I want to turn revulsion to reverence,” he said. “Arthropods are amazing animals and a good first step to appreciating and loving them is to simply take a closer look.”
“Beautiful Beasts: The Unseen Life of Oklahoma Spiders and Insects,” featuring 12 of Shahan’s photographs as well as the video, shown above, is on display at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History through September 8, 2013.
January 25, 2013
Art buffs are not the only ones intrigued by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. In a fun experiment in 2005, a group of researchers from the University of Amsterdam analyzed Mona Lisa’s famous smile. They ran a scanned reproduction of the painting through “emotion recognition” software, which concluded that Mona was precisely 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful, 2 percent angry, 1 percent neutral—and completely unsurprised.
In 2010, scientists in France used X-ray fluorescence spectrometry on the painting and found that da Vinci applied layers upon thin layers of glazes and paints to achieve the subject’s flawless complexion. Then, this past year, Italian archaeologists exhumed the skeletal remains of Lisa Gherardini, the suspected sitter for the portrait, in Florence, in hopes of identifying, once and for all, the real Mona Lisa.
And now even NASA has taken an interest in da Vinci’s coy lady.
In an experiment in laser communication, scientists at the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging (NGSLR) station at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, beamed a digital image of the Mona Lisa to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) some 240,000 miles away.
“This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances,” says David Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a recent press release. Smith is the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter’s principal investigator.
NASA scientists, up until this point, have used radio waves to track and communicate with satellites traveling outside of Earth’s orbit. Going forward, however, they are considering lasers, which can transmit more data at a faster rate than radio signals.
The LRO, a satellite that has been orbiting the moon and mapping its surface since 2009, provided the perfect test case. The spacecraft is the only one currently outside of Earth’s orbit that is capable of receiving lasers; it can be tracked using both lasers and radio.
But of all images to send, why the Mona Lisa?
“We chose the Mona Lisa because it is a familiar image with a lot of subtleties, which helped us to see the effect of transmission errors,” says Xiaoli Sun, a scientist at NASA Goddard and lead author of a recent paper about the project in Optics Express.
The digital image essentially rode “piggyback” on laser pulses that are regularly beamed at LRO to follow its position in space. NASA describes the process in more detail in its press release:
Precise timing was the key to transmitting the image. Sun and colleagues divided the Mona Lisa image into an array of 152 pixels by 200 pixels. Every pixel was converted into a shade of gray, represented by a number between zero and 4,095. Each pixel was transmitted by a laser pulse, with the pulse being fired in one of 4,096 possible time slots during a brief time window allotted for laser tracking. The complete image was transmitted at a data rate of about 300 bits per second.
The satellite pieced together the full image and then sent it back via radio waves. The portrait was not transmitted perfectly; natural disturbance of the laser as it passed through the Earth’s atmosphere account for the blank pixels in the image, shown above. (At one point while the image was being sent to LRO, an airplane was detected within five degrees of the laser, and the laser was blocked for that time, which explains the vertical white streak running through the image.) Sun and his team cleaned up the image using what’s called Reed-Solomon error-correction coding.
The experiment will likely be the first of many. “This pathfinding achievement sets the stage for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), a high data rate laser-communication demonstration that will be a central feature of NASA’s next moon mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE),” says Goddard’s Richard Vondrak, the LRO deputy project scientist, in the press release.
On a simpler note, though, I can’t help but wonder: what would da Vinci think of Mona Lisa’s cosmic journey?
December 12, 2012
With a stark white background and a splash of color, minimalist master Andrew Zuckerman has reinvented the way we look at the world around us. Known for his crisp photographs of celebrities and wildlife, Zuckerman turned his lens on the plant kingdom and captured 150 species in full bloom for his latest book Flower.
The filmmaker/photographer culled through over 300 species—even visiting the Smithsonian Institution— to select plants both familiar and exotic. Armed with a 65 mega-pixel camera, Zuckerman’s images capture the color, texture and form of each flower and showcase them in a way never seen before. Smithsonian.com’s multimedia producer, Ryan R. Reed, recently interviewed Zuckerman to find out more about Flower and the creative process behind the images.
You’ve shot portraits of politicians, artists and endangered species. Why did you decide to turn your camera on flowers?
I am very interested in the natural world, honestly not as a scientist or from any intellectual place, but from a visual perspective. I am really interested in this precise translation of the natural world. I like photography as a recording device. It’s the best possible two-dimensional representation of 3D living things that we have.
A project like Flower suits my tendencies. I have really wanted to understand how things work my whole life and then deconstruct things. My work—these books, these projects—are about being curious about a subject. When I want to understand a subject, I decide, okay, I’m going to focus on this for a year, and I go out and I do a lot of research and I find out a lot about the subject, in this case flowers. I partner with people who have flowers in private collections, and I decide to methodically go through it.
The flowers are photographed on stark white backgrounds. Why did you make this choice?
The work is not on white for an aesthetic reason. The flowers are on white because that is neutral; I sort of vacuum everything out. I find that you take a walk in nature and come upon an amazing flower, and that flower, your understanding of it, your interpretation of that experience seeing that flower, is chaotic and confused by everything around it. The weather, the green plants around it, the path you are on, a number of different variables that have very little to do with the flower are there. When I get interested in a subject, I am most interested in honing in and nailing down exactly what it is. So, in terms of a flower, I want to take it out of its context. I want to study its form.
I am not interested in Ted Kennedy in his office on Capitol Hill with his books and his beautiful desk and everything, his environment. I’m interested in him, his face, his expression. How do you reduce the subject down to its essential qualities, and then, furthermore, when you do a number of subjects, how do you democratize all of them so that you can see the differences between them? So that you are not seeing the differences between the white of the background or the light or anything else, but you are just seeing the subject. It seems simple, but for me it’s been a very challenging and exciting process to really find what it is that is truly essential to that singular subject, and then to see it in context of its family rather than the environment that it’s thriving in.
How did you select which flowers you would photograph?
Taking the pictures is the easy part. Getting the subjects and figuring out what I want to do and what will tell the story in the most holistic way is the hard part. I am a big book collector. I love books. For a long time, every time I saw books on flowers, I had just been buying them. I had been tagging pages of flowers.
Darwin’s star orchid, for instance, is not a particularly pretty flower. It’s not even a particularly interesting-looking flower, but the narrative of it is fascinating. It was totally instrumental in Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution. There is this 11-inch spur that is coming off of its blossom from the bottom, and he thought there has to be this insect with some kind of an appendage long enough to pollinate it. No one believed him, but 40 years later entomologists discovered this moth with a tongue that is four times longer than its body. It was the one insect that could unfurl its tongue, get all the way to the bottom past that spur and pollinate the flower.
Then, there is the purple passionflower, which is an incredibly beautiful, vibrant, flamboyant flower, but its narrative qualities are not that interesting to me. So, there were different reasons for different flowers. I wanted to touch on different types of flowers—medicinals, orchids, roses and other groups. For the most part, I have like a hit list, a real wish list, and I have been very fortunate to work with some serious, smart and efficient people here at the studio, who would be calling institutions and private collections and organizing when the perfect date was for a flower to be photographed. Getting an extraordinary place like the Smithsonian to allow me to just roll in and set up a studio in their greenhouses and have the pick of the place is an incredibly lucky thing.
Can you describe the setup for each flower and the techniques that you used?
It’s a numbers game; take as many shots as I can, and I’m going to get the one that I respond to most. Artists, especially, have anxiety…what is my vision? What is me, or is the thing I just did actually an expression of what I have seen? The work that I feel is most authentically mine is the one that is my first reaction, the first thing that feels like the truth. In aggregate, those choices, those series of decisions, create your point of view, your visual language. With Flower, I was searching for that project that I would not have to justify intellectually or think about in any way. That’s what was fun about it.
My set up is very simple. I’ve been doing my lighting and photographing things the exact same way for a very long time. [Robert] Mapplethorpe contextualized flowers. Georgia O’Keeffe contextualized them. They’ve often been metaphors for something of the human condition. I was just interested in the flower; I wasn’t interested in the flower standing in for something else. And so, there’s a reason there are no shadows or romance in my work. I don’t place myself onto the image. I actually try to get myself out of the work so that one doesn’t look at the work and go “wow, that’s an amazing picture” but that someone looks at it and says “wow, that’s an incredible flower.” I’m sort of a conduit to get the information from the natural world to the viewer. The choices made in composition are purely instinctual, and I try to never go, is that right? I think, okay, I put it there, that feels right. As soon as it feels right, I move on; it’s very quick actually.
You produced videos in conjunction with the book. Can you talk about these?
I’d say a majority of my time is spent film making, not photographing, and every single project I’ve done has had a strong film component to it. I’m very interested in multiple entry points; I like houses with lots of doors. When I do a project, I like the idea that someone is going to experience the book, someone is going to experience the film, someone else is going to experience a framed photo on a wall, but they are all going to get to the same root thing as long as all of those mediums are exploring it from the same place.
It was just kind of fun. There’s this long history of time-lapse filmmaking of flowers, and I get especially excited about and challenged by exhausted subjects and mediums. I look at the time-lapse film and I go, is there anything else we can do with this? Is there anything that hasn’t been done yet? Can we breathe life into this? Because it’s not the subject we’re tired of, it’s the execution. So, is there another way to execute this?
I had the flowers around the clock in my studio for a couple of weeks at a time. I would take a singular photograph every five minutes, and then my friend Jesse Carmichael, who was a founder of Maroon Five, made this really interesting score.
Claire Tinsley, Smithsonian.com’s production intern, assisted in the production of this Q&A.