E-project: Nick Veasey's X-ray Vision

More interested in what's happening under the surface than above it, Nick Veasey has X-rayed more than 4,000 objects over the past decade because "they look cool."

Oct 16, 2009
By Jacqueline Tobin

Nick Veasey works with X-ray equipment to create unique images for both commissioned jobs and personal work.
Photo Credit: © Nick Veasey
Nick Veasey works with X-ray equipment to create unique images for both commissioned jobs and personal work.
Two years into his career, British photographer Nick Veasey made a decision to never do anything but X-ray photography. Fifteen years, several dozen commissioned ad jobs, a book and gallery shows in the U.K. and the U.S. later, his commitment remains unbroken. And awestruck viewers of his work continue to ask the same question: "How the heck did he do that?"

What's special about Veasey's X-rays is that every mundane object he comes in contact with—a perfume bottle, a bulky tractor, a delicate flower, a bat (the flying kind)—is revealed to have a compelling, even beautiful allure. A recent campaign for a Victoria's Secret fragrance and skin care line, as well as a similar one for a Chinese makeup company, zeros in on the ingredients of the product, including the Acai berry and Patchouli herb in their natural glory.

Two of Veasey's most frequently seen pieces are perhaps the most head-scratching. One shows an entire bus filled with several skeletons, both seated and standing; the other shows a Boeing 777 and airplane hangar. The latter is assumed to be the world's largest X-ray photograph. "It's like painting by numbers," says Veasey, 47, as he explains his process matter-of-factly. "Everything I do involves breaking down and X-raying various components of an object and then putting it all back together again in Photoshop." It sounds easy but he conveniently omits the fact that he's risking dangerous radiation exposure every day.

"The tail that really wags my dog," he continues in a charming English accent, "is that when I X-ray something, the image on the film is exactly the same size as the object." Think of it as a contact print, he adds. If you want to photograph something very big, like an airplane, you have to break that down into pieces of film. According to Veasey, the largest piece of film available is 14 x 17 inches, so he might put down six or eight of those film sheets to make an area of roughly 6 feet by 2 feet when working with something very large like a plane.

For the Boeing 777, which he was commissioned to shoot by Pentagram Design for United Airlines (right before 9/11, when airline security tightened), he first X-rayed a 6-foot section of the wing, then had 6 or 8 individual films of the wing that all had to be drum-scanned and then "tiled back together in Photoshop." For just one seat of the plane he needed at least ten shots; the entire plane generated over 500 separate X-rays. The process took Veasey three months to shoot, and then another three months to retouch. The finished piece is displayed at the United Airlines terminal at Boston's Logan International Airport.

And what about that bus? Commissioned by The White Plains Hospital Center in New York to promote its orthopedic wing, Veasey used one skeleton (loaned to him by a medical school) and repeatedly placed it in various spots throughout the bus. He then X-rayed component and seamlessly joined together as one image. The skeleton's bones, says Veasey, were held in place inside a rubber suit. The usual metal pins found in a classroom skeleton would have shown up on an X-ray but rubber, he says is less dense than bone and doesn't usually show up on an X-ray.

All of Veasey's X-ray photography is done at his studio (called Radar Studios) in Kent, England, where he also has a dense concrete bunker (containing the radiation) and a photo lab. The remote building was once the site of a former Cold War spying station and is perched on top of a hill sitting on four acres of land. The lab, Veasey says, is "over-specified to make sure it's idiot-proof. So if I'm on my cell phone and I'm preoccupied, I can't press the button that makes the X-ray while the door is open. There is a fail-safe switch engineered into everything." He adds, "It's a real life-saver." All lead-underwear jokes aside, the only protection he dons is night vision goggles while he's stumbling around inside a darkroom.

All of his work is done using three X-ray machines: a powerful one allows him to penetrate very thick material, like steel; what he calls a "dainty" one is for very fine detail like capturing flowers and leaves; and a third one is used for "everything else." In addition to shooting various elements of a single object "one piece at a time," Veasey says that he may also need to make several X-rays of the same object at different power levels to bring out various details of an object, as was the case with a recent Powerade Inner Gear campaign. The ad featured three naked rugby players. In one shot, made up of at least 250 layers, a player's legs were overlaid with X-rays of pneumatic pumps to symbolize speed. Veasey says he had to take several shots at different power levels to bring the various components of the pumps into clear view.

Having shot commercial assignments and exhibited his prints in galleries, Veasey says his work is still evolving. "Now I'm moving from doing just 2-dimensional prints on a wall in a gallery to making 3-D sculptures with an X-ray image built into a lightbox of a certain object." Case in point, his dissection of a mini Cooper car which on Veasey's Web site is shown in various states of deconstruction as he "ravages" it for X-raying, one piece at a time. "When the image is displayed, there will be half a mini car," Veasey explains, the excitement building in his voice. "When cut in half across the longage you are able to get in on the driver's side. When exiting, you walk around the other side of that wall where there will be a life-size lightbox cut to the shape of the car and containing an X-ray of the whole mini."

Veasey has been invited to add three of his framed prints and one 3-D piece—in this case the mini—to the Victoria and Albert Museum's British Collection of Photography later this year.

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