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Malformed – A Collection of Human Brains from the Texas State Mental Hospital

Today the White House announced its goal to fund Brain Research, in hopes of furthering understanding of brain disorders and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Two years ago Scientific American magazine sent me to the University of Texas at Austin to borrow a human brain. They needed me to photograph a normal, adult, non-dissected brain that the university had obtained by trading a syphilitic lung with another institution. The specimen was waiting for me, but before I left they asked if I’d like to see their collection.

I walked into a storage closet filled with approximately one-hundred human brains, none of them normal, taken from patients at the Texas State Mental Hospital. The brains sat in large jars of fluid, each labeled with a date of death or autopsy, a brief description in Latin, and a case number. These case numbers corresponded to micro film held by the State Hospital detailing medical histories. But somehow, regardless of how amazing and fascinating this collection was, it had been largely untouched, and unstudied for nearly three decades.

Driving back to my studio with a brain snugly belted into the passenger seat, I quickly became obsessed with the idea of photographing the collection, preserving the already decaying brains, and corresponding the images to their medical histories. I met with my friend Alex Hannaford, a features journalist, to help me find the collection’s history dating back to the 1950s.

Over the past year while working this idea into a book, we’ve learned how heavily storied the collection is. That it was originally intended to be displayed and studied, but without funding it instead stagnated. And that the microfilm histories of each brain had been destroyed years ago.

My original vision of a photo book accompanied by medical data and a comprehensive essay turned into a story of loss and neglect. But Alex continued to pursue some scientific hope for the collection. After discussions with various neuroscientists we learned that through MRI technology and special techniques in DNA scanning there is still hope. And with the new possibilities of federal brain research funding, this collection’s secrets may yet be unlocked.

As we begin the hunt for someone to publish my 230 images accompanied by Alex’s 14,000 word essay, the University has found new interest in the collection. They currently are planning to make MRI scans of the brains.

Below are a few samples from the much larger body of work.

Details – March Body Section

Below are some images from the March issue of Details. Obviously it’s fun to play with a human skeleton and cocktails during a shoot. But for this project most of my energy went into the Elimination Nation story.

We were asked to create images that violently object to certain foods. I had recently acquired some  Einstein strobes from Paul C Buff that fire a flash duration as fast as 1/13,500 of a second. Putting Profoto to shame (sorry, a little photo dork talk here). It was a great excuse to give them a try. We used firecrackers to blow up bundles of wheat. In some of our frames you can see the actual fire crackers exploding, and the fragments are nearly razor sharp. I like these little lights a lot! Thanks to the Strobist for a great recommendation.

Texas Photo Roundup

Starting Thursday and running through the weekend, right here in good ol’ Austin, will be the Texas Photo Roundup. There will be workshops by the likes of one of my Texas heros, Wyatt McSpadden. Presentations by peoples like the infamous Dan Winters. And talks on things like money by people like me. As in me. And other people who know a lot more than me.

I’ll also be attending a lecture Saturday morning by Andrew Hetherington and Monte Isom. I’m hopeful that it’ll be insightful enough to justify me to get up early on a Saturday.

A lot of things are sold out, but some of the things I’m personally the most excited about, and feel are the most valuable, still have a few openings. If you are in the Austin area and haven’t taken a look, check it out here: www.texasphotoroundup.com

NASA, Robonaut & IEEE Spectrum

My first trip to NASA last year was to photograph Robonaut for IEEE Spectrum. They created an interactive iPad app that highlights robots from all over the world, used in various industries. I was the lucky kid who got to hang out with the space robot.

We created animations that feature Robonaut’s human like hands, its ability to life weights with torque similar to a human, and it’s range of motions. This thing is up on the space station working along side astronauts, and has to use the same tools that they do. So it’s important that it functions much like a human. Except it doesn’t need a space suit. Pretty convenient.

On top of the space robot stuff the app is pretty neat. I thought it was interesting, but my four year old nephew thought it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. When he refused to put it down for dinner his mom gave him a timeout. Sorry dude.

Communication Arts Typography Annual

I just got the CA type annual and was flipping through some really great work, pleased to see some friends represented, when I stumbled across a magazine that my pals at Pentagram Design did. First I said “Wow, more Pentagram work in here,” then I remembered, “hey, I shot that!”
A few months back our friends at Pentagram called us up to photograph some water abstracts for a cover story. Designer Barrett Fry created the cover copy, and thought it’d be interesting if it were distorted by ripples of water, so he sent the type my way and I started to play.
We simply printed it out and set the copy under a tank with an inch or so of water in it. And some food coloring. Then we just splashed up a storm. I tried to keep the distortion to a minimum for legibility, but art director & legendary designer DJ Stout called me up an demanded more ripples and splashes. And good thing he did. The results are below…

PONG & Bye bye 2012

In addition to being the 40th anniversary of Pong, the world not ending, and Leonard Cohen releasing another album, this year has been a lucky one for us. I went to NASA twice, hung out with a space robot, we created what feels like thousands of photographs for dozens of magazines, and I began a massive personal project that I hope to complete by the end of 2013.

Sooooo much work hasn’t even been published yet, so I’m not allowed to show it (no matter how much I want to!). Some of it has, but we’ve been taking so many photos I haven’t had the time to share anything new. Ugh. Oh well. Until I get my act together….

PONG!!! <click the link, click the game, start>

All your base are belong to us!

Happy New Year,