E-Project: The Architecture of Flowers
OCTOBER 07, 2011
By Holly Stuart Hughes
Flowers—delicate, romantic, symbolic—are among the most painted and photographed subjects in the history of the visual arts. Flowers are also complex organisms whose structure is supported by sophisticated vascular networks. In a recent series he calls “Flower Abstracts,” photographer Giles Revell has analyzed the architecture of flowers using a CT scanner, a device more commonly thought of as a medical diagnostic tool. In Revell’s black-and-white images, petals and stems are transformed from pretty romantic symbols into sculptural objects. “I guess I quite enjoy rediscovering well-trod paths, and looking at objects from a different viewpoint,” he says.
Revell, who lives in London, has often collaborated with the city’s Natural History Museum on projects that fuse photography and science. The relationship began ten years ago when a government-supported council for science and art commissioned him to create a series on insects. He used an electron microscope and digital imaging to show the sculptural qualities of the insects’ exoskeletons. The 12 huge prints he produced became “Fabulous Beasts and Insect Tectonics,” which was exhibited at the Natural History Museum and toured the UK. His relationship with the museum has continued. “I’ve kept in touch with them over the years. To go down there is such a privilege. One day they’re working on a meteorite, the next day it’s a shark’s head.”
Recently Revell became intrigued by how the museum’s scientists were using their CT scanner to examine fossils and other specimens. “The CT scanner is a brilliant diagnostic tool for them,” Revell explains, especially when a priceless specimen cannot be touched. “This method of imaging is so powerful. Imagine a fossil locked up in a rock,” he says. With a CT scanner, “You can image the fossil with the rock stripped away.”
Revell explains that a CT scanner, like an X-ray, creates images by differentiating between densities within an object, but it allows the operator greater control and produces a far more detailed picture. “You decide which densities interest you,” he explains. In one of his earliest experiments with the machine, he scanned a fish. “I decided to take that fish to pieces in a really graphic way.” He says, “I was able to look at the bones, and also the space that the bones take up.”
A CT scan, Revell explains, is made up of about 2000 images (what Revell calls “slices”) recorded as the scanner penetrates each layer of an object, producing a completely three-dimensional view of the inside and outside of the scanned object. Once you have the finished scan, he explains, “You can look at it [the object that’s been scanned] on any plane you choose.”
Revell next wanted to scan some plants. “The opportunity came along to do it in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens and the Times [of London] magazine, Eureka,” the newspaper’s monthly science supplement. The three organizations sponsored a garden of medicinal plants at the Chelsea Flower Show in London this spring. Revell says, “They came to me with the idea of making images of plants in different way.” Having liked the results he got with his fish scans, he suggested using the same scanner to produce images of plants.
He began work on the series in April. “The only limitation was the kind of flowers we could gather.” He eventually selected a lily, a rose, a poppy, allyum and other common plants that would be shown in a new way.
The scanning takes about 20 minutes and, as anyone who has had to undergo a CT test knows, “It depends on remaining perfectly still,” something that was surprisingly difficult for some plants. “They tend to droop,” Revell says.
Revell had to master the scanner’s imaging software, which, like 3D imaging software, illuminates images. It also allows him to choose the angle at which he wants to scan, and which of the slices he wants to work with. “The files are something like 30 gigabytes,” he notes. “There’s so much information.”
Some of his flower images are starkly sculptural while others, like his image of an iris, reproduce the shadowy outlines of petals and leaves. “I wanted some to be brutal, others to be more delicate,” he explains. These different effects depended on the slices he selected to merge into his final, composited image. For example, Revell says the image of the poppy is made up of six separate images sliced at different intervals.
While the scans can show flowers in three dimensions, Revell produced two-dimensional prints that were reproduced in the pages of Eureka in May. But he has continued to explore how to reproduce the scans. By linking together several slices made from the poppy, he created an animation that shows the flower being slowly constructed. When viewers see the animation, he says, “At first you interpret it as the plant growing, but actually it’s slowly revealing itself, layer by layer.”
For his next project, Revell wants to see if plants’ stems and vascular systems, which carry water and nutrients up from their roots, would also take in chemicals similar to the Barium solutions patients drink before undergoing diagnostic imaging. Revell hopes to find a way to capture the plants’ filament structures separate from their external flowers and leaves. “It’s an art/science project. If we could look at the take-up of different plants and record their vascular systems, not only would it be scientifically interesting, but esthetic too.”
To pursue the experiment, he’ll have to share time on the scanner with the Natural History Museum’s scientists, but he says they’ve been very accommodating of his projects. “It’s relatively simple, compared with the things the researchers are working on. But for scientists so intensely interested in natural history, it’s sometimes quite refreshing for them to look at something that’s naïve, but also beautiful.”