Nick Veasey makes powerful images thanks to a process far from traditional photography: the x-ray. This English artist presents fascinating and unique photographs, in the sense that an image appears on a light-sensitive negative. For many years, he has used this particular technique to make “alternative” images for advertisements, nonetheless, he continues to passionately explore more personal themes and subjects that intrigue him.
Do you see yourself as a photographer or as a technician?
I did x-ray. I did conventional photography. So, it was a development from conventional photography, but to create my x-ray pictures, I don’t have to use traditional photographic techniques. That presents a debate as to whether I’m a photographer or a radiographer. I make money from taking pictures, so I am a commercial photographer or image-maker.
When I first saw your work, the picture of a Boeing 777 , it caught me. I read that it was a composite five hundred different x-rays. Can you explain how you produce such an image?
When I x-ray an object, the image on the film is exactly the same size as the object you’re x-raying. It’s like a photocopy. So when you x-ray a plane, you need lots of film. It’s individually done; you can do about twelve films in one go, but each of those films has to be processed individually, scanned individually, and then joined back together on the computer.
I have a team of people at my studio that do all the post-production, because when you are dealing with x-rays it’s completely different to photographic film, if any of your readers remember that. Photographic films back in the eighties, before the digital age, were scanned to print. An x-ray has emulsion on both sides, whereas traditional photographic film has only got emulsion on one side, so when we scan the x-raym they’re a bit thicker, and obviously they’re black and white. So we’ve built profiles on our scanner that gets the best detail from the x-ray, which again was a bit of a learning curb. It took me three or four years to understand how to get the best detail from each scan. We’ve got a massive drum scanner in my studio, again from the 1980s, that you can’t buy now because it’s redundant technology, which we use to scan everything. When you’re doing a big project, like a car or a plane or a bus, you need to have all that organized so it means having a team of people.
You mentioned that it was black and white, but some of your work shows colors. So the colors are added in post-production?
Yes. I go through phases where I love working with color, then I get fed up with it and go back to black and white. My standard way of treating an x-ray is to give it a little duotone of blue so it’s black and blue, rather then just being black and white. Traditionally when you think of an x-ray, you think of the beginning of a TV show like ER where the doctor puts an x-ray on the light box – they have a blue tone to them.
But I treat everything independently and look at the image, and think: does it need color? Will color help it? Sometimes you spend a few days experimenting with color and go back to single color, monotone, because it just didn’t work. Certain subjects look better on a black background than on a white background. It all depends, really. A lot of conservative people that see my work say: “Oh, it’s really beautiful, but it reminds me of when my aunt had cancer or when my dog had to go to the vet to have an x-ray of his leg.” They see the negative parts of an x-ray, so if you introduce color to it, it takes you away from those associations.
You just mentioned an x-ray, which has a background that is white. How is that done?
When you take the original x-ray the background is black. So, to turn the background white, you make sure the background is one hundred percent black and then invert it. When inverted, it’s gone from being a positive to effectively a negative.
So all these kinds of techniques were things you learned over time? Because I think in your early work, there was no such white background.
In my early work the backgrounds were always black because I was, in some ways, held back and in awe of the process, because it’s such a fascinating thing to look at. When you process a film and it comes out of the machine, it’s such an exciting time. When you see it fall out and you put it on the light box and you’re looking at it, it’s like the old days of photography. When you’re in a darkroom, developing a negative into a print, you see it happen in front of your eyes. You don’t get that with digital, you don’t get that excitement, because you haven’t seen it intimately.
What is you main focus in the studio? Do you do mostly commercial or personal work?
It’s a difficult dilemma because I’ve got a studio, equipment, people, so you have to continue with the commercial work, it’s just that the commercial world is changing very rapidly, so you have to be nimble, and move with the changes. But, I’d love to be able to just concentrate on my personal fine art work, but I can’t afford to. I have to take the commercial commissions when they come to keep things going. That said, I do refuse to do certain things; when I can’t meet a deadline I’ll turn things away.
Commercial work is a necessity at the moment. Commercial work can be very stressful and dull, but sometimes you meet some interesting art directors from some of these advertising companies that do have really good ideas. When you collaborate with someone who’s never seen an x-ray, and is coming into it fresh. They take you to places you wouldn’t go on your own – not always good places, but it’s a different way then you would do it on your own.
Would you consider doing work other than x-rays? Aren’t you worried about getting stuck?
I’m happy being a one trick pony by just doing x-rays. I never want to do any other sort of photography again. There are still many, many things to do with x-rays. But you’re right, because I’ve x-rayed a laptop now maybe fifteen times. The next time someone asks me to x-ray a laptop, I’ll do it without thinking about it, but I’d rather not. And you do get stuck in a rut repeating the same things time and time and time again. The inside of a Dell laptop or a Mac laptop, they’re all made the same way. The first x-ray of a laptop it’s interesting, but not the fifteenth.
In your personal work, how do you decide to x-ray an object? When you see something on a table do you think: “I want to try that?”
I’m quite a motivated person and I x-ray all sorts of things. And then, something amongst that will interrogate me and I will develop projects from an image that is strong. I’m working on a project about plants at the moment, about organic things. It sounds a bit obscure, but the pictures are really strong.
I’m not the most organized of people, so I spend a week on a project, and then leave it, do something else and come back to it in a few months. So, sometimes you forget and leave it, other times you pick it up and take it somewhere else. And you make a few mistakes along the way. The work that really has resonance is always project based. When you put the works in a gallery context, on a wall, do they have any meaning together? Is there a flow to the work? Is there a meaning in the exhibition? That’s the stage I’m at now.
So it’s not about picking up something random, it’s about focusing on something in particular?
I love to work. I’m at my happiest when I’m in my studio x-raying, so I’m happy just to bang away, x-ray, x-ray, x-ray. But you end up with a big mixture of images that you don’t really know what to do with, so you have to be focused.
How do you decide on your projects? Is it the aesthetic curiosity or the technical difficulty that is interesting?
The pictures that get talked about are the ones that are technically difficult to achieve and that’s what gets a lot of people interested in my work. I’ve never seen a bus x-rayed. I’ve never thought it possible to x-ray a bus. And there are long-term, challenging projects that are very stimulating because it’s like solving a complex problem. But once you’ve worked out how to do it, it’s not that inspiring. What’s really inspiring is when you have the opportunity to connect individuals to your work. Now whether that’s shown in a gallery or it’s something that someone sees on your website, or something that you publish in a book. There are a variety of ways of getting across what’s really important to me. Hopefully, when I die, my legacy will be the fact that I’ve left behind the most beautiful collection of x-ray images ever made.
How specific is your technique?
I’m not the first to use x-ray. Man Ray used x-ray, Moholy-Nagy used x-ray in the 1940s. I’m really focused and I don’t do anything else. And I’m not the only one using x-rays at the moment, there are other people using x-rays around the world, unfortunately. I suppose I love it more than they do because I do it everyday, I dream about it.
How did you actually get into this? I read about the coke can that was the first thing that you ever x-rayed, but before this coca-cola x-ray, did you already know the work of Man Ray?
Absolutely. I was a big fan of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, and still am. I collected books and researched imagery by them. Not only did they experiment with x-rays, they were also experimenting with photograms. Before I did x-ray, when I said that I was doing conventional photography, the pictures weren’t particularly conventional, they were very experimental. I’d play around with the chemicals and the focus, I’d put bleach in the film, open the back of the camera, etc. I’m not really interested in traditional, conventional photography…
…Except when you experiment?
There is less variety in the equipment available to photographers nowadays. You see the work of someone like Sally Mann – when she does her prints, she uses glass with imperfections, chemicals, and old school plate cameras and things. Her pictures have something because of that; they have imperfections in them. But when you look at the fantastic digital photographs, in some ways they still do. We have to respect the real world. The thing with Photoshop and digital photography is that everything looks too good, too polished. It’s unreal, it’s synthetic, and that doesn’t really appeal to me. T he x-ray process shows things for what they are – really what they are, from the inside out. So if it’s really beautiful, it shows you it’s really beautiful. If it’s a piece of shit, it shows you that it’s a piece of shit. It’s honest, and I like that. I still use Photoshop, and everything, you know.
The digital as a tool, not as an end…
It’s just that we’re surrounded by this vision of what we all should be like, because everybody is airbrushed. But the women are beautiful without airbrushing.
Do you work with people as subjects?
To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not that interested in the human body and x-ray because I don’t know it as well as a surgeon or a doctor. I find it quite interesting that on the inside we’re all very, very similar, whereas on the outside we’re all totally different. I use that element in my work because it has quite a powerful message, but I’m not particularly turned on with x-raying the human body.
You also have x-rayed other living things. I was particularly stunned by the sea star. What are you looking for when you x-ray animals or living things?
I’m a fairly technical man, so I like to know how things work. Now when you’re dealing with natural forms, you might not understand everything about how they work, but if we x-ray the sea star that we’re talking about, you see these little suckers that it has at the bottom of its body and how it came to the rocks in the rough sea. Also you get the idea of how it developed from being a baby sea star into a fully-grown sea star. You see the fact that it’s got a central system that gives it its strength. For a sea star, the strength comes from the point in the center. Hence you can break one of their legs off and they will re-grow. They regenerate because in the rough sea, a fish can bite it off, so they can repair themselves.
So, it’s driven by curiosity.
Yes, and even in a simple natural form, like a leaf, you see the veins, and you get an idea of how it sends food around itself so that it can live and grow. Nature is an area that I’d love to explore more and more. It never fails to interest me.
How did you learn photography?
I did photography at school. I left school at sixteen, and between sixteen and twenty-five, I did nothing, really, just lots of dead-end jobs. And then I got a job in a printer. One of the clients was an advertising company, and we used to print small stuff for them, like advertising brochures. I met the people from an advertising agency and I thought it was much more interesting than doing business cards for a window cleaner. So I got to know a bit about advertising.
Then, when I was about twenty-six, I went to night school to get a degree in advertising. I worked in an advertising agency in London doing traffic, which is like an administrative role, where you organize the whole of the process. That introduced me to photographers and really reignited the interest I’d had in photography when I was about fourteen. I went out and bought a second hand, medium format camera. I was still working in the adverting world, but in my spare time, evenings and weekends, I just went out and started shooting and shooting, and thought up a really strange portfolio of abstract photography. I got work for rave flyers, record covers, and the odd arty magazines. But I wasn’t making enough in photography to be a fulltime photographer. When I was about thirty-three, I started to go out fulltime as a photographer. My lucky break, really, was discovering x-ray fifteen years ago.
And it completely changed your life?
It sounds as a cliché, but it was one of those life-changing moments where you just knew that you’d found something that was worth developing. I didn’t know at the time then that I’d be doing x-ray for the rest of my life. I do now.
Do you have something that you know would be impossible to x-ray?
There are things that are technically unsympathetic to x-ray – things that are wet, like water, or a glass of water. Liquid and x-rays don’t mix very well. If you x-ray something that is wet it creates a soft image. It is constantly challenging. So, when I x-ray seaweed, I have to dry them. You have to get them at the right stage before they dry too much, shrivel and break and look dead. I try to get them so they still look alive. That’s something that you have to control, which is always difficult with nature.
I’d love to do a few more signature pieces, like you talked about my bus and my plane. I’d like to do a street sweeper that at night goes around and cleans the streets, with a flashing light on the top. It has little brushes at the front and a big vacuum cleaner and all the rubbish that comes up off of the street in the back of it. I think that would be pretty cool.
So you’ve worked fifteen years with x-ray. How did the technique evolve? Did you actually have collaborations with manufacturers of x-ray machines?
To get good at anything you need to get your hands on decent equipment. When I first started out I didn’t have the money to buy any x-ray equipment, nor did I have facilities in which to use it because obviously it’s radioactive so you have to be very, very careful when you use it. Initially I wasn’t helped at all by the scientific community, but once I got together a small portfolio of work that I could share with other scientific people they were really helpful, both in the medical and industrial world of x-ray. I’m amazed at the amount of support I continue to get from the companies that are bringing out new equipment. Very often they want me to create images for them using their equipment.
Scientists and artists have a long history of collaborating and it’s great fun. When you work with a nerd, with a techie (in English we call them ‘beards’ because they always have beards and wear sandals), you get to see that they’re really interesting people. They don’t understand the aesthetics; they’re really interested in the process, whereas I’m the opposite. It’s great to come together. If you can devote the time to experimenting, that’s how you make new discoveries.
I appreciate what you were saying earlier, that it’s difficult to do something new all the time and I agree with you; it is difficult to reinvent the wheel every time. And the advertising agencies are the worst at it. They want every advert to be unique. In the commercial world, they want you to deliver. So they want you to discover something new that’s never been done before, but they want it on Wednesday!
What is your experience in advertisement? What is your freedom in this business?
My experience is that it’s normally overly complicated. You have an art director and a photographer who together will create the image and all these people behind the scenes making it needlessly complicated. Normally the client is paranoid about their product looking good and everybody else wants to know that they’re getting paid their money. There are a lot of people involved that don’t really need to be and unfortunately someone has to answer their questions. I find that very dull.
The other photographers that I know who work in advertising have the same issues, but you have to be professional about it. Once you’re at the stage where you are ready to take the picture, you make the picture as beautiful and technically as good as it can be. I understand it’s about money and you’re trying to sell something- it’s a business, you have to be organized. But some of the time, especially with the Americans, it’s just needlessly overcomplicated.
Once, for an American advertising job, I had to give them a contingency plan for what happens if it rains. There is a form that you have to fill out before you get an assignment. I do my x-rays inside a building that has a roof on it, so I wrote on this form, what happens when it rains: we close the window. They actually wrote me back and said: what do you mean you close the window? Do you need an assistant to close the window or do you close the window?
A strong commercial portfolio shows that you are very experienced, so that you don’t get as much hassle as a young photographer. I can imagine for a young guy or a woman trying to start out in the commercial world, they can get really bullied and pushed around by these people. Listen to their opinions too, but stand your ground, don’t get pushed around. Otherwise, what you think will take a day will take a week, what you think will take a week will take a month.
Interview and portrait by MF in Knokke, transcription Rachael Woodson, translation to French by LG
Link to Nick Veasey’s website