Exposing Beauty

Artists use X-ray technology to showcase botanicals, proving flowers are more than just pretty faces
Skylands main terrace, summer home of Martha Stewart

Freesia 683 by Albert Richards.

Flowers have been a natural part of artistic expression since the beginning of time, but when art and technology combine to create an X-ray print, it encourages us to look beneath the surface—or rather peer within—and see a lily, a tulip, a leaf, or a rose in a whole new light. “I believe we’re all gardeners at heart,” says British artist Hugh Turvey, “and flowers are inherently beautiful. But the X-ray connects and keys people into their own imaginations.” Floral X-rays focus on the dense internal structure of the plant and let the usual stars of the show—the colorful petals and foliage—fade into transparency. Instead, the “bones” of the flower are revealed, stripping away details that distract from the essence of the subject.

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HUGH TURVEY trained as an art director, and had initial success as a photographer. When he discovered the X-ray medium, he found his path. “I’m attracted to graphic imagery,” he says, “and the hidden meaning within graphic imagery—seeing what is already there. Our visual familiarity with flowers makes it a natural subject.” He is currently the artist-in-residence at the British Institute of Radiology in London. Xogram Polychromatic Fiori, Rose #4

X-ray images are a relatively new discovery, having transformed the world of science and medicine a little over a century ago. However, as their initial focus on anatomy broadened, an art form was also born. Today contemporary artists and scientists continue to exercise their creative muscles, marrying an ever-evolving technology with their artistic perspectives. They create compositions and play with distance, sometimes focusing on just the blossom or on several flowers together. Artist Nick Veasey says, “I position the subject and I see how it looks, but to take the X-ray I have to leave the room, close a huge, heavy door, and wait for two to three minutes,” he says, referring to the process that protects him from overexposure to the radioactivity. “Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Something might move and destroy the composition, and I do it again.”

Skylands main terrace, summer home of Martha Stewart

NICK VEASEY started his professional life as a commercial photographer, but when he began doing X-rays it dovetailed his interests in the beauty of nature and of the X-ray. “Hold a flower up to the light, and you’ll see the veining, its intricacy and architecture,” he says. Veasey marvels at the natural wonder of the plant. “I never manipulate a flower so that it looks a certain way,” he says. “Nature manipulates us. My job is to keep the environment as stable as possible to get a good image.” Citing Victorian botanical illustrations as a source of his inspiration, Veasey has works in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Three Peonies

Although the process (and, of course, creative outcome) differs depending on the artist and the machine used, it always involves patience and a methodical approach to an organic—and often quickly wilting—object. Yet all start with the same “tools”: an X-ray taken in an enclosed space, behind a reinforced lead door. The reality of radioactivity is never far from the artists’ minds (and precautions are taken just as seriously as the art), but it doesn’t distract from the task at hand. “People worry about the radiation, but we are all exposed to small amounts of radiation regularly,” says Turvey, “whether we’re flying at a high altitude or going through security at the airport, and we’re fine.”

Skylands main terrace, summer home of Martha Stewart

BRYAN WHITNEY was working as a photographer, but he got interested in X-ray imagery thanks to his wife, who is a conservator and uses an X-ray machine to analyze artwork. He gravitates toward floral X-rays because of the delicacy of the petals and leaves. “I work hard on the composition of the X-ray. It’s almost like hand drawing the image; it’s not at all automatic,” he says. Part of his attention goes to completing the negative space: “I’m somewhat inspired by Japanese art, and I really look at the tension of the space and the flower.” French Tulip

Printing the image brings in another layer of complexity, as the paper chosen is part of the artistic process. An emulsion may be applied, or coloration may be added to enhance the ethereal impression of the work. New York photographer Bryan Whitney says, “I hand color all of my work, essentially brushing it in with the computer. I’m trying to get the right tonality.” By “right tonality,” Whitney is not describing the exact reproduction of an image. Instead he works with the flower and the medium to convey his impression of the subject. Inspired by the idea of transparency, Whitney’s colorations reveal the density of the flower—more opaque color at the dense stem, and faint shading at the petals to reflect the thinness of the blossom.

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A photographer with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, JUDITH MCMILLAN discovered X-ray when she used the machine to capture objects in scientifc exhibitions. Flowers were a natural evolution. “I’m a manic gardener so I had access to my subjects,” she says. “There were no favorites—that’s like trying to name a favorite child. You love them all for different reasons.” Podophyllum peltatum (May Apple)

With X-rayed botanicals, artists transcend the outwardly beautiful by deconstructing the physical to get to the heart of a flower. To look at a skeletal image of a chrysanthemum or magnolia is to realize that the phrase “beauty is only skin deep” may apply to the human world but not the botanical one.

Skylands main terrace, summer home of Martha Stewart

As an engineer, radiographer, and professor at the University of Michigan, the late ALBERT RICHARDS was renowned for his mechanical inventions in the field of dental radiography. But Nick Veasey calls Richards a master of the floral X-ray, and his work is considered a benchmark for current X-ray artists. Today his daughter Kathleen Richards manages his work. “It was Dad’s passion,” she says. “He was a pioneer in the field in the ’60s.” His works are on display at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and the Michigan League. Waterlily A1264-S

By Frances McDougall