Nick Veasey had each component of this Boeing 777 shipped to him, then x-rayed them on 43x35cm film. The entire image is made up of more than 500 x-rays, stitched together by Veasey's designer, Stuart O'Neill. The process took months, and was shot for Boston's Logan Airport in 2003. Images © Nick Veasey.
Nick Veasey got into x-ray photography through happy accident. Once a struggling commercial photographer, he won a gig shooting x-ray images for a jokey item for The Big Breakfast, searching for the hidden winning code inside promotional cans of Pepsi Cola. He didn’t have a clue how to do it, he admits, but gave it a try and was instantly hooked. Within two years he had vowed never to take a conventional image again and, nearly 20 years later, he’s shot well over 3000 subjects, ranging from tiny bugs and plants to an enormous Boeing 777.
These days, he has his own lead-lined studio on a former military base, designed to protect the photographer and his assistants from radiation, and his clients include BMW, Nike, Levi’s, Porsche and UK rock band, Supergrass. His x-ray artworks have been exhibited and published around the world, and his prints are held in the V&A’s permanent collection.
His images are shot using the same principles as any other x-ray images, including the test scans taken in hospitals. X-rays – electromagnetic radiation similar to that of visible light, but with a much shorter wavelength – are passed through an object and onto photographic film. Because they can travel through certain substances more easily than others, the film is exposed to different degrees, creating the familiar spectral images. There the similarity ends. Veasey’s x-rays stand out because of the amount of detail and clarity he’s able to capture, through a combination of technology, know-how and sheer ingenuity.
Image © Nick Veasey.
“I have three different x-ray machines in my studio,” he says. “It’s like having three different lenses because you need different degrees of power for different materials and densities. One of my x-rays is good for flowers, another for plastics, another for steel. I use medical x-ray machines, but I also have industrial equipment ordinarily used to check for stress fractures, which are much more powerful, and I’m working with extremely dangerous levels of radiation, so I have to wear lead underwear and a lead apron, and leave the room when the x-ray is being taken.”
The length of time that Veasey needs to photograph his subjects for varies according to what they’re made of and, if the object is made up of several different materials, he will x-ray it over and over again at varying levels to capture all the elements. He’ll then combine these shots in Photoshop to produce a final image with maximum depth and clarity. The closer the object is to the film, the more in focus it will look, so Veasey also often cuts his subjects up, capturing their various facets bit by bit.
He approached the 777 the same way, x-raying each component of the plane individually, then stitching them together in post-production. Other objects require different approaches and techniques – lightbulbs, for example, are harder to x-ray than you might think because the rays bounce off the curved glass surface and scatter around the image. Veasey got around the problem by blasting a bulb in a series of 10-second bursts, building up the fine details in succession.
How did you shoot that?
Because of the way they’re created, x-ray images are exactly the same size as the objects they depict, and Veasey works on large film negatives, measuring up to 35×43cm. If the object is too big, he adds in extra negatives, stitching them together to create the end result. The negatives cost £12 a pop so there’s little room for error, but Veasey processes them all himself, then scans them on a high-resolution drum scanner to create digital files. He then carefully cleans and retouches them, spotting out imperfections and burning in the details. “Medical and industrial radiographers come to my shows and ask, ‘How did you shoot that?’ But there’s always a way, you just have to be patient and resourceful.”
Veasey is a world expert on x-ray these days, but says he’s still surprised – and disappointed – by some of the objects he shoots. He recently x-rayed an octopus, for example, but while its eyes and suckers were amazing in the flesh, the x-ray proved disappointing because these creatures have so little internal structure. A simple water glass turned out to be surprisingly beautiful, meanwhile, despite being as empty as the squid. X-rays of human beings are endlessly fascinating, but Veasey has to use some macabre methods to photograph them, as the levels of radiation are too high to use on living, breathing people. He can’t use conventional medical skeletons, because they’re held together with metal wires and pins, so he has to resort to shooting skeletons in rubber suits, or actual corpses, photographed in the eight hours before rigor mortis sets in. The latter don’t smell nice and are creepy to work with, he says, but they produce some stunning results.
Beneath the surface
For Veasey, x-rays are a thing of beauty, both aesthetically and philosophically, because they look beyond the mere surface of things. “Let’s appreciate the love and effort that goes into making everyday stuff,” he writes of his limited editions of teddy bears and ice cream cones, “revealing the inner aesthetics of the quotidian”.
Image © Nick Veasey.
Ironically, his work has proved a hit in the fashion industry where, as he puts it, they provide an antidote to that world’s obsession with surface appearance. But his art is also increasingly in demand with international galleries, which he started to work with around four years ago. His shot of a puffa jacket is currently on show at the V&A, for example, in a display running alongside its Shadow Catchers exhibition of cameraless photography, and, this year alone, he’s had solo shows at Dubinsky Fine Arts in Zurich, Galeria TagoMago in Barcelona, 21galleries in Berlin and Klaudia Marr Gallery in Santa Fe.
Veasey is rightfully proud of his success in the art world and enjoys the freedom it affords, although he laughs at the tangents he goes off on “when I’m in my bunker x-raying away”. He’s too modest. In a world obsessed with hidden threats, in which security x-rays are increasingly prevalent, his work, is more relevant than ever.
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