Showing the invisible

If you’ve been following along, you know that this is the story of a fellow ordering his thoughts about perception, beauty, evolution, art and especially photography into a tangible, salable object the likes of which persons of good taste will yearn to possess. It’s my graduating thesis for Graphic Design school: design and construct an attractive, coffee-table grade book of experimental photography.

The subject has been discussed at some length in entries previous to this one in which the visible spectrum was set to be wrung free of every last juicy photon through a variety of twists and turns of photographic chicanery. But there remains all of that energy beyond the visible spectrum: the radio waves beneath it and mysterious hazards that vibrate above. Dare I tackle ionizing radiations?

No, frankly. I don’t think I do (because death rays). But who can say where the project may take me? You could pick up a pretty cool digital handheld dental x-ray machine on ebay for just a couple of Bordens.

Get your wireless handheld digital x-ray machine today!
Get your wireless handheld digital x-ray machine today!

Look, man, radiation is dangerous. But if ever there was a case of mother nature cruelly conspiring to limit my perceptive envelope, it’s the fact that she made a great many things utterly, perfectly opaque to me. Why can’t I see right through stuff?

Oh yeah, because it’s “solid.” Folks haven’t always been so squeamish about penetrating matter. Consider the shoe-fitting fluoroscope.

If you were buying shoes in the big city in the 1920s, you might like to examine those wing tips in the machine shown above: in its base, beneath the wee foot hole, is a powerful x-ray producing tube. There’s no film to develop: it works in “real time” because above the foot hole a sheet of fluorescent paint-treated glass absorbs some of the rays produced from below–save those which have been absorbed by your feet and new shoes. Most of the remaining radiation is absorbed by the users’ heads, which would be right over the peep holes at the top of the box during use.

Remember, this ain’t no fancy scientist stuff; this thing is for selling shoes (and for giving people cancer of the feet and eyes, obviously). I’d love to be as plucky as some flapper picking flats for a night of Lindying, but I’m still… you know: death ray.

Here’s the thing: when I presented this thesis idea to the class, one chap noted in the Q & A afterward that where each of my previous categories seemed to resolve neatly into some manner of generative binary (expansion / contraction, above / below, time / space), there didn’t appear to be a similar correlate for the area beyond the visible spectrum. It’s a matter of balance. The thing seemed so neatly paired, but beneath the infra red and above the ultra violet, things get really strange and / or dangerous. I wasn’t sure how to proceed.

And then I met the work of Berenice Abbott, whose  fascinating collection of technical / beautiful photographs is called Documenting Science. In it, Ms. Abbott departs from the style that made her famous (documenting the urban tumult of New York in the thirties) to apply her delicate, minimalist aesthetic to matters of scientific exposition. The results are stunning.

bereniceabbott_documentingscience10 bereniceabbott_documentingscience9 bereniceabbott_documentingscience15

In her studies of interference, magnetism and waves, respectively above, Ms. Abbott does precisely the thing I wanted to do first (but isn’t that always the way?): show the invisible patterns of energy moving outside the visible spectrum. Worse, she did it, like, fifty years ago. Dang.

But there’s hope. Ms. Abbott would have rolled back on her heels whistling through her teeth had there been such a thing in 1950 as ferrofluids. And I got a jug of that stuff. Check it out:


So that’s where things stand. A photojournalist turned science glamor photographer of the 1950s and shoe salesmen of the 1920s have bookended the visible spectrum long before I was even born. But new materials have made the zone beneath the visible spectrum rather attractive. In the name of balance, therefor, I must discover some safe means of exploring the zone above, too.

Death rays. Dang!


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