By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
For more than a decade, the curatorial staff at the Museum of Jurassic Technology has been charting the geography of that interstitial zone between being and not being. Housed behind an unprepossessing facade in Culver City, situated in a block that seems an imminent candidate for redevelopment, the MJT might be characterized as a repository of the almost there. Here, glimmering in the half light, lies a collection of things that hover on the borderline of existence: objects in the process of coming into being or on the verge of decay, people who have been forgotten, theories dreamed of and half-imagined, ideas whispered and rumored, creatures so fleeting they cannot be glimpsed directly, and artworks so small their very presence is called into question. The peculiar alchemy of the Jurassic spirit expresses itself most forcefully in ontological ambiguity, and a new exhibition -- devoted to the work of Michigan radiographer Albert Richards, who over the past four decades has perfected a technique for X-raying flowers -- takes us closer than ever to this vaporous edge.
X-rays reside in the electromagnetic spectrum between ultraviolet and gamma rays, and are able to pass through materials that visible light cannot penetrate. In a process more akin to holography than to photography, an object exposed to X-rays casts a shadow on a film -- no lens is employed, and the resulting image is a direct projection of the thing itself. Over the course of his career, Richards has X-rayed a wide variety of objects from bombs and bird wings to insects and snowflakes, but in flowers he has found his true metier. Dream apparitions, intangible as smoke, these blossoms appear to be sculpted from ether, each not so much a picture of a flower as a blueprint for the Platonic idea of a flower. Could this be what Karl Kerenyi had in mind when, with mystical ecstasy, he envisaged “flowers, glowing with their own internal light, almost trembling under the pressure of the meaning they bear within themselves”?
Ghostlike and gossamer fine, these evanescent images pull us beneath the surface dazzle of color and scent to a hidden world of unsuspected botanical intimacy. Transmuted to tissue paper by the energetic rays, a calla lily swirls diaphanously around its stamen, a vegetable dancer in private pirouette. Nearby, a cobra plant (Darlingtonia californica) rears its head like a young snake, its network of veins made palpable within the skin of the serpentine flute. Even the overused rose offers new insight, the X-rays revealing layer upon layer of overlaid sheets like the finest French pastry. While in the human body X-rays articulate an irrevocably messy interior, here the effect is elegance, sparsity, geometry -- as in the bowl of a lady’s slipper orchid, whose seamless symphony of compound curves would shame Frank Gehry‘s wettest dreams.
One is reminded here of the groundbreaking work of the great German plant photographer Karl Blossfeldt. Like Blossfeldt, Richards has never sought recognition for his work; focused on his empirical studies, he has always seen himself in the domain of science rather than art. In an old black-and-white portrait photograph, Richards smiles gently down upon his visitors, looking like nothing so much as a kindly family dentist. Now in his mid-80s, the former University of Michigan dental-school radiographer holds six patents and has authored more than 100 articles. His research achievements include the development of the recessed-cone dental X-ray head (used in dentists’ offices around the globe) and the invention of X-ray dynamic tomography. Whether medical, dental or industrial, radiography has traditionally been used to probe solid objects such as teeth and bones; Richards has painstakingly adapted these techniques, fine-tuning the intensity of the beam to capture the insubstantial delicacy of blossoms. No flower is harmed in the process, he assures us in his enchantingly homey self-published book, The Secret Garden, a catalog of highlights from decades of diligent botanical documentation. In his basement is a lifework of nearly 4,000 floral radiographs, an inimitable treasure of photographic history.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but non-necessity seems an equally potent force in the human psyche. Richards‘ fascination with botanical structure ultimately led him to an extravagant technique for making three-dimensional radiographs. Viewed through stereoscopic glasses, each flower floats wraithlike in its own private theaterette, a miniature maquette in light. Three-dimensional illusionism has long been a favored style of Jurassic magic, but in this exhibit the effect is executed with unprecedented precision, due to a revolutionary technology developed by the famed inventor Edwin Land. Complementing the Richards gallery is an adjacent hall devoted to Land and his equally enigmatic invention.
Classical stereoscopic images are created by two pictures displayed side by side -- one red, the other green. By peering through redgreen glasses, each eye sees just one of the pair -- which the brain then interprets as an illusion of depth. Land, the genius behind the Polaroid Corp., realized in the 1930s that stereoscopic images could be made on a single sheet of film; instead of using red and green filters, the same effect could be achieved with two planes of polarized light viewed through the same polarizing filters now used in sunglasses and camera lenses the world over. He called these images “vectographs.”
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