The Photography – An Interview with Chris Wood
How did you develop the techniques used to create this images?
I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with Nicola on this project. A conversation we had during an earlier meeting, regarding the similarities between the microbial world and nature really sparked an interest to begin photographing these plates close-up.
On my first visit I realised that conventional lighting would not fully illustrate the colours that were found within these colonies and that illuminating them from the under-side of the agar plate would allow me gain the full impact of their colour saturation.
By placing the plates on a light-box I was able to provide enough consistent light to begin gaining the saturation we were looking for. This amount of light was also really helpful when focusing on sections of the colonies.
We began shooting each Agar Plate as a whole to begin with. Nicola used various stamps to create patterns such as trees and leaves, so we thought it best to show the image as a whole before concentrating on individual patterns within the work. Again, I felt that represented the overarching connotation of the work; that this pattern of growth and decay is at every level of nature.
Once the establishing shot (of the whole dish) had been taken, I was free to move around and photograph individual colonies, concentrating on the interesting shapes, colours and particular pathways that certain bacteria’s had chosen. Moving around like this really required the camera to be hand held, as shifting from one focal area to another where too small and would be too restricting to control comfortably using a tripod.
The beauty of using a lightbox rather than direct flash was that it provided me with the ability to use an additional reflector, in an effort to capture the texture that some of these colonies had produced.
What challenges do you face, working in a laboratory?
When photographing subjects within the Laboratory, infection control is always an issue to consider. If I needed something moving slightly, Nicola would have to do it for me. After each Agar plate that I photographed, everything had to be wiped down, before beginning the next. Occasionally the smell from the subject was also interesting! Especially whilst shooting the macro, as my face was only inches from the plates.
What equipment/settings did you use?
The equipment used for this project was a Nikon D610, Nikon AF-s Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED VR Lens.
When hand holding the camera, speeds above 1/50 sec were required, at f-16.
At this distance, approximately (1:1 ratio) our focal plane was limited to around 4mm of focus. We could have ‘layer stacked multiple images’ in effort to get every part of the frame in focus. However I feel that this short focal length allows the eye to get pulled into exactly what we intended the viewer to see.
What advice would I give to other people under taking similar projects?
As with all photographic projects, I would say gather as much light as possible.
With an adequate amount of light, your ability for creativeness becomes a lot easier.
Your shutter speeds and f-stops can invariably increase; rather important if you wish to consider hand holding as an option.
Finally, the best advice….explore! We have found that given a little time and a willingness to take a lot of photographs, you’ll naturally find a method that can be the overarching style for your chosen series.
An interview with Nicola Fawcett
How did you work with Chris to create these images?
It’s been really eye-opening to see how much the skills of the photographer contribute actively to the process of creating the artistic piece – it really has been a collaborative effort. Creating the bacterial/agar piece itself was only about half of the work, and without the photographic skills of Chris, they can often look very unexciting! (You should see the pictures I take on my iphone…)
There are so many things I’d never considered -the challenge of getting adequate light without the reflection off the agar, the need to get the focus right… I also saw the need for a really steady hand, when Chris was manually focusing on things that were less than 1mm and needing to keep the shot steady.
I agree with Chris that there are huge rewards in taking the time to discuss plans, try things out. We spent many evenings after the ‘real’ work – 6/7/8pm messing around with agar plates and light boxes, trying to get the perfect shot.
There was also a huge amount of post-production work that I hadn’t ever thought about. I know he spent hours painstakingly blowing up the images to 500% and removing every grain and hair in these images, so they could be magnified and printed a metre wide…
What challenges were there?
Infection control was obviously the big concern. As Chris said, he kept hands off, and I did all the handling with proper protective gear. Everything got rigorously decontaminated afterwards with 70% alcohol. In a way it was quite easy, as I know Chris has been working at the hospital for many, many years, in labs, operating theatres (including open brain surgery) and wards, so he’s well trained in appropriate infection prevention measures and hygiene. I guess I’d say that any scientists working with photographers should make sure that appropriate local health & safety procedures are followed, and that everyone is aware of them.
How did the collaboration come about?
Before doing research, I worked as a hospital doctor on the medical wards (where I’ll be returning after finishing my PhD, I hope!) and often we needed photography of patients wounds or rashes, to record how they were responding to treatment. Chris worked in Oxford Medical Illustration, which provides this service (among many others) to the hospital. So we probably met over some particularly scaly rashes. Afterwards, Chris also did some publicity work for the Modernising Medical Microbiology research group, including the standard pictures of Scientists Looking At Things Of Interest (which included agar plates). He also did and some photographs of some of my culture plates, and I was really impressed at the time he took to do them well, and the difference that it made to the end result. So when the American Society of Microbiology Agar Art competition came around, Chris was the obvious person to ask to do the photography. That, and he also seemed genuinely interested in the subject!
If you had to summarise the messages of these pieces in one paragraph, what would it be?
Think of your gut as a garden of bacteria. Taking strong antibiotics can be a bit like spreading weed killer, killing off the good stuff as well as the bad. Sometimes you need to control an invasive, harmful species, but a lot of the time the best thing is to leave the gut to recover by itself. By using weedkiller, often all that happens is the few ‘resistant’ plants survive, which are rarely the plants you want in your garden. This is similar to how when you take antibiotics, what you’re sometimes doing is just ‘removing the competition’ for the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and these can survive to take over. So in conclusion – your gut is a precious, diverse and beautiful ecosystem! If in doubt – don’t disrupt.
How would you summarise your research study?
How did you start working on agar art?
I think almost everyone who has done agar plate culture has tried doodling a bit with bacteria. Our diagnostic laboratory has a tradition of creating a few Christmassy images every year. Apparently Alexander Fleming used to create bacterial ‘watercolor paintings’ as a hobby, and it may even have been one of these that led to the discovery of penicillin!
I’d been working on ways of measuring the amount of different bacteria in samples from human guts, and had sort of ‘got to know’ the different bacteria, and how they behaved when grown in different conditions. How they looked when grown in mixtures, how many times you needed to dilute them to get individual colonies visible, how they responded to antibiotics…
What made you think about using bacteria to create art?
The inspiration came totally from Anna Dumitriu – our research group’s ‘Artist in Residence’. She travels the world displaying her pieces – I think she was recently in the US completing a residency there, and her ‘MRSA quilt’ and ‘Sequence Dress’ were in Seoul, Japan, Prague… She has a permanent installation at the Eden Project featuring gut bacteria, and we’ve done a number of workshops together at places like the Victoria and Albert museum. Without here, I’m absolutely sure none of this would have happened.
We started working together after I saw some of her pieces at our research group’s public engagement days, and was impressed at how she was able to draw people in, to initiate conversations about infections, about antibiotics, in ways that we, as scientists, couldn’t. Anna calls a lot of her work ‘conversation pieces’, and it was exactly this method – talking on even ground, finding out what people were interested in learning about, and responding to this, rather than a hierarchical ‘I as the scientist will tell you what is important’ – that appealed to me.
So when I saw the American Society of Microbiology ‘Agar Art Competition’ announced, I immediately knew that I wanted to take part. I spent some time experimenting, and came up with my final entry, ‘Wild Garden of the Gut Bacteria’ – and also wrote a blog about the science behind it. There were some amazing pieces created for the competition – I highly recommend you go and have a look! We didn’t win anything, but the competition got a fair amount of coverage, and it was fun to see the images in places like the Huffington Post and the national newspapers online.
How did the exhibition develop from there?
I was very lucky that some of our public engagement and communications teams at the University picked it up and worked to promote it, and it seemed to generate a fair amount of interest! Some of the online science blogs –Gizmodo for instance, did some great coverage, and BBC/ITV news did short online pieces The images got covered in the BMJ. Of course you create an image meant to convey the complexity of the interaction of antibiotics with our gut microbes, and the headline ends up being ‘Scientist Creates Art out of Poop’ – but there we go! If at least a few people who wouldn’t normally talk about antibiotics read the article and take one thing out of it, then I’m happy. Actually, I’ve learnt a lot from seeing how proper science journalists write – how to be concise, how to pull the key bit of interest, but also how to keep the important facts in. The University library and one of the science museums also got in contact, interested in displaying the pieces too.
This interest meant that I could apply for some money from the Medical Research Council (MRC) to hold an exhibition, as an exercise in science public engagement. The MRC fund my PhD (as a Clinical Research Training Fellowship) for which I can’t thank them enough, and we were lucky that they agreed to give us some ‘seed award’ funds to cover the costs of producing the exhibition.
How did you get the idea for the design?
Oh goodness, this is a real essay of a question and has rather long answer! I’ll try and write a shorter summary; I wrote the full story of the design here: livinginamicrobialworld.wordpress.com.
What is your main motivation for this project?
I have been searching for a way of communicating the unseen, bacterial world for some time. My research focuses on the effects that antibiotics have on our gut bacteria, and our health. Bacteria aren’t all bad, in fact, the bacteria that live on us and around us aren’t just ‘hitching a ride’ – they’re incredibly important to our health, involved in our metabolism, helping our immune system function, possibly even affecting our mood and thinking…
That being said, bacteria can’t be seen as totally good either.
As a hospital doctor, around a third of my work is treating patients come to hospital with severe infections, caused by harmful bacteria, or just bacteria which have grown out of control, and are harming the patient. It’s increasingly evident that what is important is not one particular strain or species, but a diverse, balanced ecosystem of symbiotic microbes. And that unecessary antibiotic use is disrupting this balance.
So it had me thinking – if I want to try and communicate this message with not just a scientific, but an emotional understanding – where in the human psyche is there an embedded allegory for diversity, beauty and balance, requiring careful handling, and also the parable of complex, changing relationships, friend, foe or neither? I’ve tried a lot out on people – visually and descriptively- forests, coral reefs, gardens of microbes… And how have people attempted the communication of complicated, often abstract concepts to others, without requiring them to read a textbook? What mediums are most effective at making people challenge the way they think of the world? Art, is certainly one answer. It’s the reason I began working with Anna Dumitriu even before the art competition.
What did your non-scientist friends/family think of your agar art?
They think it’s hilarious. Mainly as the ‘scientist creates art from poop’ story… But actually it’s been really positive. People who hadn’t a clue what I was doing, or I’d tell them and then they’d forget -to them now I’m the ‘Poo Doctor’! The art and the image sticks in people’s minds far better than dry words or text…
I’ve had emails from loads of people about it!
What was the biggest challenge in creating your work?
You know the old showbiz adage of ‘never work with children and animals?’ – I sort-of feel the same way about bacteria and art- they seldom behave the way you want them to, steadfastly refuse to do what you expect, and create no end of inconveniences for you by their behaviour. There were more than a few test-runs, created with out-of-date agars….
The hardest bit was getting the design onto the agar. ‘Painting’ the design on didn’t give me the resolution and accuracy. It seems bacteria don’t seem to like following stencils – they just grow underneath them. They don’t mind being stamped, but then insist on dripping sideways and blurring the lines. It’s why we used stamps in the end.
Bacteria also have have inconvenient growth times, so you have to go into the lab at 11pm to take them out of the incubator when they’re ‘just right’. The whole experience is rather like developing an old-school photograph- you create the image, and then have to wait for it to develop and for things to become visible…and if you got it wrong, you just have to start all-over again…