Morphic Photography

Ferrofluid with permanent magnets underneath
(Image courtesy of Felice Frankel)

Here are two provocative examples of morphing developments in photography, especially in the age of digital (and signficantly, nearly cost free and unlimited) options.

The first features Felice Frankel, author of Envisioning Science. Frankel has come a long way in bringing meangingful visual imaging into the lab and classroom. While her images are accurate and not manipulated, they are more powerful because she has made conscious compositional and color decisions.

From an article about Frankel in the New York Times:

With her help, scientists have turned dull images of things like yeast in a dish or the surface of a CD into photographs so striking that they appear often on covers of scientific journals and magazines. According to George M. Whitesides, a Harvard chemist and her longtime collaborator, “She has transformed the visual face of science…”

“We started talking about how one represented science on the blackboard,” [Whitesides] recalled, “and at some point she made the remark that she thought we did it badly and I said, ‘Well, you show us how to do it better,’ and we were off and running…”

Since then, Dr. Whitesides said, “her impact on scientific communication has been very large, in the way science talks to science and science talks to the world outside science.”

One of Frankel’s most famous images of a ferrofluid (see above) was enhanced when she placed a yellow post it note beneath the slide. It didn’t change the science, but it made the image much more dramatic and visually memorable. It was made into a poster and has become a ubiquitous scientific image.

Frankel is cautious about claims that her work makes her an artist as well as a scientist. More from the Times article:

When people call Felice Frankel an artist, she winces.

In the first place, the photographs she makes don’t sell. She knows this, she says, because after she received a Guggenheim grant in 1995, she started taking her work to galleries. “Nobody wanted to bother looking,” she said.

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

Phenomena like magnetism or the behavior of water molecules or how colonies of bacteria grow — phenomena of nature. “So I don’t call it art,” Ms. Frankel said. “When it’s art, it’s more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image.”

But Whitesides and other scientists may not agree. “She has a wonderful sense of design and color. It is hard to say she is not an artist,”Whitesides said.

The surface of a CD is compared to a player piano roll
(Image courtesy of Felice Frankel)

The other phenom is finding out that what I have always done with a camera, even before the advent of digital technology, has a name. Miksang is a Tibetan word that means “good eye.” It comes from the dharma art teachings of the late meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, specifically his teachings on the nature of perception.

From Robert Genn’s newsletter:

The art of Miksang was begun as a meditational tool by Shambhala Buddhists, but it has implications for painters and other creative people. The idea is to find joy and awareness by attending to the minor and seemingly insignificant–the colours, patterns and textures that exist in the close-up world…Shambhalas think widespread use might lead to more compassionate and enlightened societies.

What value does Miksang have for creative folks? Obviously, Miksang makes for pause, reflection and quiet centering. By increasing awareness, one builds a feeling of wonder and kinship with the overlooked. But its real value is in seeing design and the subtlety of colour. To the discriminating eye
the macro world is a minor symphony. Looking through a viewfinder and making decisions hone the ability to find the larger compositions. It’s all about the acquired skills of looking and seeing. Buddhist or not, this art can be performed at any time and any place.

There are over 3,000 images tagged as Miksang on Flickr. I probably have three times that many images of my own in the photo boxes in my closet and as digital files on my computer.

Like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who is surprised to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life, I have no problem with Miksang as the name for a never ending fascination with the play of light on a wall, with a suggestion of cosmic dust in beach sand, or the universe of color in the bark of a tree.




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