The World's First Living Bacterial Photograph -
And Newton said, "Let there be light!"

The world's first living bacterial photograph grown in a petri dish using aqueous media, was by UK artist. Roy Amiss on the 18th October, 1997, who grew a portrait of Isaac Newton in a petri dish filled with an aqueous bacteria culture containing nutrient media. The bacteria belong to the class of purple bacteria - photosynthetic bacteria that use light to generate energy. The images produced, were very fine and delicate: a thin ghostlike semi-transparent pigmented bio-film coating the bottom of the petri dish. A high- resoultuion image was produced, owing to the smallness of the bacteria.

The petri dishes were illuminated from underneath, and photographic masks placed under the dishes that allowed the light to pass through in the light areas of the photograph, thus flooding the bacteria with light in only those areas. After a period of 19 hours, an image is formed.

The image is a product of a combination of photosynthesis, phototaxis and scotophobia - a phenomenon where bacteria ae either attracted to the light, or scotophobia, where they move away from the dark. Amiss started working with the bacteria on the 10th May 1997, whilst a resident artist at the Schroder Art Foundation in Holland, and between then and 2001, he has grown some 61 images. An example of such an image is shown below:

Photographic Bacterial Image of Isaac Newton grown in a petri dish by artist Roy Amiss in 
Photographic Image of Isaac Newton grown in a petri dish by artist Roy Amiss in 1997. The original photograph of Newton was taken by the artist from the National Portrait Gallery London, of a painting by Godfrey Kneller.
Photosynthetic activity was first visualized photographically, by von Sachs in 1884 by masking plant leaves with silver foil, and by using an iodine stain, he was able to create starch pictures. On a somewhat larger scale, the artists Ackroyd and Harvey in 1991 and since, have pioneered photosynthetic photographic images using grass. In their collaboration with scientists, a genetically modified grass was created in which the photosynthetic pigment would not fade, and so the grass would stay permanently green! They have generated large photographic images by projecting images onto such living grass. In a similar way, in November 2005, a group of American students at the University of California at San Francisco, genetically engineered the bacterium E.Coli, to enable it to respond to light and produce a black pigment. By using a projector, they have been able to create bacterial photographs.

The phenomenon of phototaxis has been deployed for pictorial ends, by Hader (1984) who produced an algograph, using cyanobacteria; a suspension of Phormidium was exposed to a projected photographic negative of a building, and the algae being phototactic, redistributed themselves according to the light intensities of the image, and thus generated a macroscopically visible photographic image. Furthermore, Hustede (1989) projected a black and white transparency onto a cuvette containing a suspension of purple bacteria, and the bacteria reproduced the picture in the cuvette after just 5 minutes exposure!

Roy Amiss, 5 December 2005

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