Everyday Eats Magnified

January 24, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes 

© Caren Alpert

Alpert says her electron microscopy image of cake sprinkles is popular because viewers recognize its subject. To see more images from Alpert's "Terra Cibus" series, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Editorial and commercial photographer Caren Alpert has photographed food and entertainment for clients like Food & Wine, Bon Appétit and Williams-Sonoma for years, but about two years ago she became interested in examining her subjects more closely. At a time when there is increasing concern about the sourcing and chemical makeup of what we eat, Alpert decided to examine foods using an electron microscope. Her images of everyday foods—a blueberry, table salt, a Life Savers candy—magnified between 40 and 250 times were recently exhibited at the James Beard House, have been featured in a variety of online publications, and are attracting interest from galleries and licensing agents. Says Alpert, “I think this is an interesting way to really see what we’re eating.”

By magnifying foods we all know, such as chocolate cake and a slice of radish, Alpert creates images that are familiar, yet startling. “Every food surprises me,” Alpert notes. “There’s a lot of texture that we can’t see or feel.” For example, while we might think of the inside of an almond as a smooth surface with a subtle crack down the middle, through the electron microscope, she says, “it looks like a gravely dirt road. Our eyesight and sense of touch don’t pick up nuances.”

Finding an electron microscope took months of research. Labs near Alpert’s home in San Francisco required lengthy proposals and had long waiting lists. Eventually Alpert, a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, contacted the school’s science department. The administrators offered her a chance to work with the department’s electron microscope and the technicians who operate it. Over the past year and a half, she has made five trips to Tucson where she “hunkered down,” she says, spending days working alongside technicians who maintain the finely tuned machine.

An electron microscope works by shooting a stream of electrons that trace the object placed inside the specimen chamber. The electrons that are scattered across the object’s surface are then recorded on a monitor, revealing the object’s shape in fine detail. The specimen chamber in which objects are placed is vacuum-sealed and sensitive to vibration. “It’s housed in the basement, in a room lined with a crepe-like material. It’s as far away from the elevator as possible, because even the movement of an elevator traveling through the floor can affect the machine,” Alpert explains.

To create an image, Alpert first chooses her subjects, and then sends them to the microscope technicians for dehydration. “No moisture can be allowed in the chamber,” she explains, because it could interrupt the path of the electron beam. Once the foods are dried, the technicians use a special process to coat them with gold. Alpert notes, “I pay for all the metal, so as the price of gold goes up, the cost of the project goes up.”

Capturing the images requires time and patience. “At the end of a day, if it’s a productive day, I would have maybe eight or ten images, and that’s without outtakes,” Alpert says. Because the lens is fixed, selecting the section of a blueberry or almond she wants to capture requires her to reposition it in infinitesimal increments, she explains. “It takes a long time to compose your shot because you’re moving across the surface of a specimen the size of a fingernail.” She also has to select the level of magnification she wants to use. She magnified a fortune cookie 150 times; she shows the crevices in a sundried tomato by magnifying it 250 times.

The greater the magnification, the more abstract the image becomes. “I try not to make anything [so] unapproachable that people can’t figure out what it is,” the photographer notes. Her image of cake sprinkles, magnified 45 times, makes the colorful sprinkles look like giant globes. “It’s a favorite right now, I think because it’s colorful and playful, but also people get immediately that those are cake sprinkles.”

Alpert brings her images home on CD-ROMs. Because the electron microscope captures images in black-and-white only, she must retouch them to correct the color. She photographs all of the food items before she sends them out to be dehydrated, and these images provide a guide so that she can match their hue, tone and color saturation in the magnified images. The post-production process, she says, “is another way to make the images accessible, to liken them to the color of the foods.”

After working on the project for a year and a half, she felt it was time to show it to galleries, so she attended the portfolio review at Photolucida in early 2011. As a commercial photographer, Alpert says, she’s used to showing and talking about her work. Seeking approval from the fine-art world, however, felt different, she says. “I tell you, I walked into Photolucida and I was a bag of nerves. It’s such a personal project.” But reviewers were encouraging. One suggested she send her work to Mito Habe-Evans of the NPR photo blog The Picture Show; Habe-Evans wrote a story about Alpert’s work which was posted in July with a slide show of images. Over the next three days, Alpert’s Web site received 90,000 unique page views. Soon, other media outlets were contacting Alpert—and several sites simply ran ten or more images without her permission. “It was fascinating the responses I got when I asked people to take the work down,” she recalls. “People who worked for big media companies thought there was nothing wrong with this.”

One media company that did pay for usage was The Daily, the iPad-only publication, which ran a feature about the project. To take advantage of the iPad’s interactivity, Alpert also provided some of the images she had made of food in its original form; by touching on one of her electron microscopy images, the viewer could see the same food as it appears to the naked eye.

This fall, she contacted the James Beard Foundation, the non-profit educational organization named for the cookbook author, educator and food critic, which has a gallery space in its building in New York City. The Foundation’s vice president, Mitchell Davis, suggested she show the work at the James Beard House. “It’s a non-traditional exhibit space, which is great for me, and it’s the exact right audience for this show,” Alpert says. “Everyone who goes in there is either a chef or someone paying top dollar to eat there. I was honored to be there.”

Alpert says that since Photolucida, her studio has been increasingly focused on promoting sales of prints, and she is fielding requests to license the images for other uses, such as greeting cards, wallpaper and installations. She continues to shoot for magazines and commercial clients, but now brings a different perspective to her still-life work. “Now, when I’m shopping in a grocery store, I don’t look at food the same way. There’s a layer added to it as an art project.” She adds that when she’s photographing a meal for an entertainment or cooking story, she has to remember to pull back. “I’m probably going closer in on the food and that’s not good,” she says. “When you photograph a dish of pad thai you can make at home, if you’re really close, it looks like intestines. You don’t want to get too close. You need a little environment for those kinds of photos.”