Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Light My Fire

Things have been rough around here...so here's one from the archives to appease the masses.

I wrote this a few years ago. There are no pictures today, but it's related. I hope you'll enjoy it anyway.

In near darkness, with only the dull phosphorescent glow of the tick-tock timer for company, she gently washes her hands through the cold liquid back and forth, catching a whiff of acetic acid with each wave. The muse had spoken, and for many days, she had mulled over scores of ways to frame the story. Sometimes, she acted with a spontaneous whim, but today, today, she had spent the afternoon hauling the heavy equipment from scene to scene. She had set and reset her shot carefully, waited unhurriedly for the perfect mix of shadow and light. Today she had been patient.

The seconds trickled downward, and as always, she could feel her anticipation climbing. The moment of truth had arrived—would her image be technically clear? Would her meticulous composition be precise? Had she set the right texture? Had she captured the story? The clock stops, she breathes in. She turns on the light.

Feats of engineering in biological research are quite often like developing a photographic negative. There is the inspiration to the problem, the design and development of criteria for your potential solution, the setup in which you choose your materials for construction. Finally, there is the execution, the moment you determine if your product is successful or if you must adjust your negative to get a polished print. Photography is also like biology because with so many uncontrollable interactions and changing variables—such as light, temperature, space in photography; ion concentrations, drug interactions, fluid volumes in biology—the photographer and the biological engineer must be able to adapt the design to account for every situation.

To me, it is developing the negative that demonstrates the sophistication level of the photographer. The negative is the artist’s real template, relating the original scene to the audience using the photographer as the messenger, and developing a proper template requires an intimate knowledge of the work. Likewise, for me to devise a viable solution, I must understand the biology and properly apply it to the consumer’s needs. Without the artist and her negative, the story cannot be told to the audience; without the engineer and her design, the research from the bench cannot be translated to the market.

The appeal of engineering for me is the same as my excitement for photography: the wait in darkness until the careful moment of revelation, when you discover if you’ve captured the story, if your design worked. Photography requires patience, creativity, and a lot of experimentation to charm the medium to recaptivate the mood that inspired you to take the photograph. You choose the camera, film, aperture, exposure; you develop the negative according to chemicals and temperature; you print the negative depending on paper, exposure, developing time. You place the print in the developer—and you wait. Engineering requires persistence, critical thinking, and a lot of experimentation to get a successful product. You research current solutions, materials, problems; you brainstorm methods and designs; you construct according to your plan, available materials, budget. You set up a few experiments to test your design—and you wait. If it isn’t what you expect, you fine-tune what you have to see if you can get what you want—until you admit you need to take the picture again, go back to brainstorming.

Standing quietly in the darkness, there is a hush and eagerness. The timer winds down, telling me the moment has arrived. I push my film through its final wash, inject the imaging tracer into my engineered heart. Did it work? I can’t wait to turn on the light.

1 comment:

jenjen said...

cool, elaine! this is such a neat and well polished piece!

i know... i'm 2 months late here... but i *do* check this page regularly and, well, no pressure or anything, but i always love to see new posts form you ;)