HUGH TURVEY: X-RAY VISION
Hugh Turvey, has x-ray vision. The British artist, photographer and experimentalist, has worked in the medium of x-ray for so long that he says he now sees the world in x-ray – he even dreams in x-ray. “It’s my world,” he says.
It’s a superpower that enables the artist to compose an x-ray picture as a photographer would frame a shot. Having trained in photography, and cut his teeth when he was younger as an apprentice to British rock music photographer Gered Mankowitz, Turvey applies all his formal photographic knowledge to his x-ray works, anticipating with accuracy how the images will turn out. He knows what’s coming in the same way a photographer knows what’s coming when he sets up his lights in a particular way, or chooses a specific lens.
Turvey likens the reveal of making an x-ray image to the moments spent in a photographic darkroom: “You’ve taken images, and you don’t really know what they’re going to be like from a negative, (especially when they are 35mm), you don’t really get the impact of them until you’ve enlarged them onto a big piece of paper and then it’s revealed to you”.
In that moment, says Turvey, “you actually see the real image, because until that moment it was just something that you imagined; you pictured it, you composed it, you took a photograph, but until it’s physically there its fixed and you can see it, there’s a transient point where anything could happen.”
There’s a famous thought experiment by American philosopher Thomas Nagel that asked the question, “What is it like to be a bat?”. It asks the reader to imagine the subjective experiences of the world for a human and a bat, whose primary sensory experience is sonar. Both perceptual experiences, though feeding back the same source, are completely different. The world according to a bat is something only humans can attempt to imagine. Through his x-ray work Turvey is not necessarily revealing an unseen world, but offering a new way of seeing what has been before us all along.
If I can make more people see the world through x-ray, which is what I’m trying to do, I would hope that they would marvel at the things that I see.
This fascination began for Turvey while he was working as an assistant to Mankowitz. A small job for an unsigned band came in which required an image of a broken bone, so Turvey headed off to the Royal Free Hospital in London on a mission. At that time radiographers where shooting on film and would create multiple exposures to account for errors, which would then be put into a special bin so that their silver could be reclaimed. Turvey met the senior radiographer, who was head of imaging, who pointed to the bin and let him see if there was anything in there that suited his requirements.
“That was fabulous,” says Turvey, “because there were just the most amazing images and all I could see was just aesthetic - it was that love of that size and impact of film that completely won me over.” He went on to work on several experimental projects with the radiographer, including one that explored chicken’s eggs at various stages of gestation. “At that point I started exploring other options and accessing other machinery that could do this, and what industries there are that use radiation as a light source to inspect things. I began to the world around us in a completely different way. It is quite a revelatory moment.”
It amazed Turvey that radiographers, some of whom have worked in their field for decades, fail to see aesthetic value in their work, despite creating images as an occupation. For them, x-ray is just a work tool, but for Turvey the fields or art and science are completely intertwined. “Science bears birth to art so as science progresses, we move forward with our discoveries and our knowledge of the world around us,” he says this is what will drive new and different forms of art.
Turvey is excited about where these technological developments could lead, citing LIDAR technology, which can look at places like Egypt to discover previously unknown structures under the sand that could not have been seen before, as especially interesting. “As technology progresses, I will progress along with it and I will use different technologies,” says Turvey.
Infinite structures and patterns within nature fascinate Turvey the most, however. It’s here we find several powerful parallels between Turvey’s x-ray practice and the world of traditional photography. Nature photography has long-been tied with the development of the progression of the practice photography. Early cameras could only be used outside due to the amount of light required for exposure, resulting in a fashion for garden and nature photography in early adopters, for example. And the work of pioneering American landscape photographer Ansel Adams–who Turvey cites as one of his key inspirations–was crucial in the conservation movement in the States, bringing into sharp relief the awesomeness of America’s natural beauty and the need to preserve it.
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Turvey too hopes that showing the “delicacy and fragility of nature” through his x-rays of flowers, for just one example, could play an important role in the compelling action in urgent climate crisis. He believes these images “could be a really powerful tool to motivate people to understand and consider their
relationship with nature in the future and our position on our planet.” The photographer who sees the world in x-ray wants others to see what is so transparent to him.
Images: Hugh Turvey
Text: Laura Havlin
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