Cell microscopy images; Abstract art

This is the third post in a series concerned with the interpretation of scientific images as art, particularly photographs taken of cells or tissues using microscopy. The first was Fluorescent Microscope Images as Art, and the second, Fluorescent Images as Art II: The individual. I’ve mentioned before that I produce few microscopy images in my scientific work, and therefore if you would like to see more images of the kind I am talking about, examples can be seen on the Wellcome Trust Image Awards site (an annual competition), and the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre posts a Biomedical Picture of the Day.

In the discussion of whether images produced in the natural course of scientific research can be or should be considered to be art, one might argue that they occupy a place alongside abstract art. Abstraction is the binary opposite of figuration, and can be defined as “art that does not attempt to represent external, recognisable reality but seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, forms, colours and textures.” Upon viewing it, one’s mind might struggle and grapple to pick out recognisable forms within the work, much as we unconsciously pick out images in cloud forms. The work of the abstract expressionists appears to bear little resemblance to recognisable forms. In a visual sense alone, the work of Mark Tobey, Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline (for Franz Kline see MoMA or Artsy), for example, might show parallels with some images taken using light, fluorescent or electron microscopy. Of course, the inescapable feature of the abstract expressionists’ work is the amount of emotion conveyed in every brush stroke and drip of paint, which immediately sets the two types of image apart.

In fact, the makers and disseminators of microscopy images do seek to represent reality, only it is a reality unknown to the vast majority of the population. The reality portrayed in some cases might only strike a chord with a small number of scientists working in the field. A more accurate comparison can be made with abstract photography, since both are captured by means of a camera. In fact, the more one considers it, the more it appears that microscopy and photography are one in the same. Microscopy is the process of taking images of subjects too small to be observed with the naked eye, using a microscope to mediate between the subject and the camera, whereas photography commonly refers to the process of taking images with a hand-held camera (or one mounted on a tripod) of subjects that can be observed unaided by the human eye. The only difference between a person carrying out microscopy and one carrying out photography, therefore, is the equipment and resources that they each have access to, together with their own personal motivation.

Abstract photography can be allied with fine art photography, where images are not considered to be journalism or reportage, but instead may be purchased to be displayed and appreciated for their aesthetic and creative qualities. The images might capture familiar objects in unfamiliar ways, or may play with scale by making something very small seem very big (macro or close-up photography). This latter point is essentially the same as microscopy, only the scale shift could be in the magnitude of a hundred or thousand times magnification for microscopy compared to a few ten times magnification at most for photography.

When regarding whether microscopy images of tissues or cells are art, therefore, one should consider whether photography itself is art (or in any case the kind of art one is looking for). Can photography alone tell you something about its subject other than to provide information about form, colour and texture?

The concept of scale is an interesting one, and is a field I explored in my portrait work. The paintings that were immediately recognisable as a part of the human body were commercially more successful, and I now understand why. For me, the more ambiguous paintings, which straddled the line between figuration and abstraction, were more interesting. How close can you magnify a section of the human body before it loses context and familiarity and becomes abstract? ‘Ear’ (2004) in particular occupied the boundary, with some people immediately seeing it as an ear (without being told the title), yet others seeing it as abstraction. The closer and larger the painting, the more abstract the image appears to become. Placing the painting far away from the viewer usually clarified their interpretation.

Hand Lines
Hand Lines (1999). Pencil on paper, 60 x 84 cm.

Earlier works, ‘Equivocation’, ‘Dissimulate’, ‘Physiognomy’, and ‘Subcutaneous’ received abstract titles, yet their subject was less magnified and therefore more figurative. Here, the title played a part in the artwork, although I would question whether this practice is appropriate. From here does it not become a slippery slope to writing a small caption, an essay perhaps, which becomes a necessary part of the artwork? The point at which the viewer is enticed, and indeed gains more from reading the caption (essay, etc.) is surely the point at which the work itself loses its success? Perhaps the use of descriptive titles and captions encourages viewers and art gallery visitors to become lazy, not really considering the work itself but relying on text to inform their interpretation. A similar issue is seen for figures in scientific papers: the longer and more descriptive the figure legend, generally the less informative and less well-constructed the graph or diagram to which the legend pertains tends to be. The more wide-ranging the audience, the longer a caption might need to be for both an artwork and figure, although in both cases the quality of the artwork and figure should necessitate a shorter caption.

Microscopy images (almost always) require lengthy captions to really explain what the photograph shows and what the subject does. Alternatively, an over-simplified caption might end up missing the real point of interest. Can these types of image really serve any more than a decorative function outside of a scientific audience, providing anything more than information about form, colour and texture at the cellular level?

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