Science that Grows into Art: UC Student s New Process Creates Photos from Bacterial Growth

Bacteria like S. marcescens, or E. coli treated with DNA from jellyfish, can make for startling realistic images – images that depict a completely recognizable Albert Einstein or a dinosaur or rabbit or even the Milky Way.

This new process for creating images is the work of University of Cincinnati master of fine arts photography student Zachary Copfer, 30, of Anderson Township.

And he will soon display two dozen or more of his phosphorescent images at University Galleries, 628 Sycamore Street, downtown Cincinnati, along with works by his fellow graduating MFA students. Copfer’s works will be on display with those of other students June 8-12. (Another group of UC students will display work June 1-5.)

Copfer has coined his new photographic process as “Bacteriography.” Put simply, it’s a process to develop images in plates of bacteria. That is to say, the bacteria – a living medium – literally grow to form photographic images.

He states, “The process is very similar to traditional darkroom photography only instead of light-sensitive photo paper, I use plates of bacteria. For this latest set of works that I will display in June, I’ve chosen to work S. marcescens and with E. coli bacteria. The S. marcescens I'm using to create images of Einstein, Darwin and DaVinci. The E. coli is transformed by the DNA of jellyfish, which causes the bacteria to fluoresce (glow). I can then manipulate the bacteria to display any form by exposing it to radiation (vs. ultraviolet light as is traditional in photography). Where I block the radiation light, an image is formed in the bacteria. For my thesis series, I’m forming bacteriaography images of stars, galaxies, nebulae and the remnants of supernovas with the transformed E.coli. I call this series Star Suff. These will all represent images taken by the Hubble Telescope.”

He is specifically selecting an astronomical subject for this series because of what he sees as the similarities between “the view seen through a microscope and that seen through a telescope. They are very much alike. The view through a telescope is very much like the view through a microscope.”

The basic steps of Copfer’s process are

  • Take a supply of bacteria like E. coli and transform it with a fluorescent protein, in this case, the DNA of jellyfish. Or use a bacteria like S. marcescens without transforming/flourescing it.

  • Coat a layer of this mixture onto a plate (somewhat like old photographic plates) and allow it to settle into the plate.

  • Create a “photo negative” by exposing the plate to radiation. Where the radiation light is blocked, an image form is created. (In traditional photographic processing, photo paper is similarly exposed to ultraviolet light to create an image.)

  • At this point, Copfer can maintain the image he has by putting the bacteria image into a refrigerator or coating it with a thin layer of acrylic. Or, he can opt to have the image “grow,” since the bacteria on the plate will continue to grow and spread unless temporarily stopped by cold or permanently stopped by an acrylic layer.

  • When the image formed by the phosphorescent bacteria is finally coated with an acrylic and resin, it is “set” and ready for display.

In the case of his “Star Stuff” exhibit, Copfer will display this series of bacteriography in a closet that stretches about five feet long in the Sycamore Street Gallery, thus allowing visitors to enter, close the door and experience the fluorescent images of galaxies, stars and more as though they were gazing at the night sky.

“Star Stuff” serves as a visual exploration of the famous quote from Carl Sagan: "We are all made of star stuff." When he said this, Sagan was referring to the scientific theory that every atom larger than hydrogen was first created in a star. Thus, all matter, all life has a common origin in stars.

States Copfer, a former microbiologist turned visual artist, “Personally, I can't think of anything more beautiful, anything more poetic or more artful than a common celestial birthplace for all life on Earth.”

Copfer doesn’t see his dual background in science and art as “dual” at all. He sees them as one, explaining, “Science is gorgeous, filled with gorgeous ideas and theories. I get the same feeling of awe and excitement when reading a scientific theory as I do when I see a fantastic photo or an aesthetic or an artistic display. Science and art are a singularity. They are one. Einstein was an artist creating art. And artists are routinely representing scientific theories on some level.”

UC’s MFA exhibit openings are set for

  • June 1 opening from 5-9 p.m., at University Galleries located at 628 Sycamore Street in downtown Cincinnati.

  • June 8 opening from 5-9 p.m., also at University Galleries.