Almost Being There

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.”

Land developed the world’s first sheet polarizer at the age of just 18, after dropping out of Harvard. This technically demanding innovation, which he would spend decades perfecting and on which the might of the Polaroid Corp. would be founded, was based on an improbable discovery by an English physician named William Bird Herapath. In 1852, one of Herapath‘s students had found that by dropping a solution of iodine salts into the urine of a dog fed on quinine, he could produce small green crystals. Under a microscope, Herapath saw that some places where the crystals overlapped were white, while in other places the overlap produced a deep blue. Herapath realized that the crystals must be polarized, but it would take Land’s dogged tenaciousness to transmute this admixture of canine effluent into a workable polarizer.

During his life, Land was awarded no less than 535 patents, just two fewer than Thomas Edison, the most patented man in history. Yet where Edison is a household name often credited with inventions he did not create, Land remains a mystery. Intensely private, he kept no journals or diaries, and after his death in 1991 an assistant shredded all his personal papers, presumably at his boss‘s instructions. If Land himself seems in danger of disappearing from our collective consciousness, so too does his vectograph technique. During World War II, vectographs found application by the U.S. military, and after the war, optical companies such as Bausch & Lomb employed the technology in vision testing; enthusiasts dreamed that vectography would become as popular as photography. But the production has remained “technically complicated and elusively expensive.”

Since Land’s death, a new means of producing sharp, clear vectographs has been perfected by his colleagues Julius Scarpetti and Vivian Walworth at the Rowland Institute. The Richards exhibit at the Jurassic is the first use ever of this technology in a museum display. Yet despite the beauty and clarity of these images, Polaroid recently announced that it will no longer make the polarizing substrate. Thus the box of film used to create the Richards vectographs may well be the last the company produced -- in perverse synchronicity with the tenuous spirit that so infuses and sustains this delightful exhibition.

For more images and information on getting copies of Albert Richards‘ book The Secret Garden, see his Web site:


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