I recently came across a great piece in the New York Times about Felice Frankel, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Innovative Computing at Harvard, who creates remarkable photographs and digital images of natural phenomena like magnetism, repulsion and nano-scale self-assembly.

This one is of an iron-rich fluid under the influence of magnets.

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Here’s another one of proteus bacteria colonies growing in patterns on agar.

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According to the NYT piece she

…helps researchers use cameras, microscopes and other tools to display the beauty of science.

With her help, scientists have turned dull images of things like yeast in a dish or the surface of a CD into photographs so striking that they appear often on covers of scientific journals and magazines. According to George M. Whitesides, a Harvard chemist and her longtime collaborator, “She has transformed the visual face of science.”

That’s pretty awesome. I’m amazed I haven’t heard of her until now.

However, she “winces” when people call her an artist:

In the first place, the photographs she makes don’t sell. She knows this, she says, because after she received a Guggenheim grant in 1995, she started taking her work to galleries. “Nobody wanted to bother looking,” she said.

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

Phenomena like magnetism or the behavior of water molecules or how colonies of bacteria grow — phenomena of nature. “So I don’t call it art,” Ms. Frankel said. “When it’s art, it’s more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image.”

Bah. Frankel is an expert photographer of the highest order – she manipulates and preens every image down to the most minute detail, just as any competent artist would. Moreover, whenever an artist portrays an image – a landscape, a building, an abstract idea, anything – it inevitably reflects themselves in some way. Really, is she any different?

I am reminded of something my first-year evolutionary biology professor said to us at the end of his final lecture (this was six years ago, so I’m paraphrasing):

“I want to leave you with one final message. Over the next four years, as you will be caught up in memorizing terminology and spending long hours at sterile lab benches, always remember: Biology is art.”

You could easily argue that real-life things – the branches of trees, the intricate network of neurons in your brain, a spiraling galaxy, craters on the moon – that were not created by a conscious mind are not, strictly speaking, art. I would disagree – those things move my emotions just as much (usually much more) than some random painting of some random nobleman, or some bejeweled skull crafted by some bullshit charlatan. But if you disagreed with me, I would have no beef with your point of view (and it’s probably far more well-informed than mine). If art is only something that is consciously created with an audience and a purpose in mind, I don’t have much philosophical recourse to argue.

However, Frankel is an artist. I don’t care if she denies it. She portrays the fascinating and beautiful workings of nature in some of the most amazing ways I have ever seen. And if she helps people to appreciate that science is about more than beakers, statistics and equations – it’s about the beauty of reality – then she has affected her audience in a meaningful way. And that makes her the very best kind of artist.

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