Marcus DeSieno is a Tampa-based photographer who specializes in merging early and modern photographic processes for his body of work. In this exclusive follow-up feature, DeSieno opens up about his process and gives a detailed walk through on his odd yet undeniably fascinating series, “Cosmos,” which was previously featured here on the Lomography Magazine, and “Parasites.”
One could say that the work of Marcus DeSieno is made up of ideas found at opposite ends of the spectrum – old and new photographic processes, science and art, the seen and unseen. He is mostly interested in the invisible, that is, bacteria and parasites, something that clearly manifests in two of his photographic series, “Cosmos” and “Parasites”. DeSieno has gone from harboring a fear of them to confronting them and pushing himself “to the edge of discomfort” by means of photography. In this interview, DeSieno talks to Lomography about the beginnings, ideas behind, and processes in creating the abovementioned series, exploring the universe around him through his craft, as well as his personal inspirations.
Hello, Marcus! Before anything else, please tell us a little about yourself.
Hello, let me first thank you again for your interest in my work. I’m a photographic artist originally from the Northeast. I received my BA in Photography from Marlboro College in Vermont. And, after some time, moved to Florida in order to attend the University of South Florida and work towards my MFA in Studio Art. Currently, I live and work in Tampa.
I’m an artist interested in photography’s relationship with science in regards to the notion of the invisible. Much of my work merges obsolescent photographic process with contemporary imaging technology as I interrogate photographic representation and the role of materiality within the medium.
Kindly walk us through “Cosmos.” How did you come up with the idea of starting it?
I have had a lifelong fascination with the vast invisible spectrums of the universe. My parents got me a microscope when I was a kid and I would put everything under its lens, an early fascination with trying to see and perceive something invisible and unseen. I also loved space. I vividly remember renting out the tattered VHS copies of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” from the public library, entranced by Sagan’s hypnotically calm voice and the cheesy ’80s graphics. It was an early introduction in attempting to understand my cosmological place in the universe.
In many ways, my series “Cosmos” is a meditative exercise to understand how I fit into this vast spectrum of existence, by forcing the microscopic and macrocosmic together into a singular art object.
The idea for this series was very much an evolution of thinking from my previous series “Parasites” (explained below). I still wanted to explore the invisible spectrums of the universe, the microscopic and the macrocosmic, and how we perceive these spaces through photographic technology and use material photographic process as a historical anchor to the evolution of photographic technology in relation to seeing the invisible.
However, I had (and still have) a deep desire to re-envision the role of material photographic process within a fine arts context. Although I was merging contemporary imaging technology of the Scanning Electron Microscope with the antiquated tintype process in “Parasites,” the results seemed mired down in a nostalgic romanticism for the past. I wanted to move photography forward into the 21st century. To do this I had to break free of my reverence for these historic photographic processes. How could I continue to use analog photography and strip it from its historic function?
“Cosmos” started as a means to re-imagine how I could utilize analog photography by quite literally deconstructing and destroying it. There are obviously many conceptual, historical, and material differences in switching from a dry plate gelatin tintype to color slide film, but I consider and use all different types of photographic processes as tools to engage in a larger conversation with the medium as a whole.
I seek to interrogate photographic materiality in an age of digital uniformity in this series. “Cosmos” is in many ways a means to further explore the physical manifestations of what I can and cannot create through tangible anachronistic photographic media. I’m interested in re-imagining the uses for this obsolescent material. In this work, I am subverting the original function of analog film and using the natural world to literally destroy photographic representation as the bacteria imprint their own index in the process.
“Cosmos” is very much an interrogation of photographic representation through the destruction of photographic material. Photographic representation of the larger universe is annihilated into abstraction by the physical presence of nature in the microscopic organisms. Reality destroys the index, the real triumphs over representation in the work, and this alludes to a larger contentious conversation between the two in relation to the photographic medium.
Where did you get your images from?
The base images are appropriated from Hubble, NASA, and the ESA; from their websites and from coffee table books of “space porn” photography.
I’m very much interested in how imaging and observing through photographic technology has changed our perceptions of the natural world, and I wish to examine what is in store for our future as these technologies continue to evolve. I’m specifically fascinated by the contemporary technology we utilize to see the far reaches of outer space. The Mars rovers are trudging through an alien landscape 140 million miles away. The Hubble telescope orbits us at this very moment as it documents the invisible details of stars being created and destroyed in a swirl of gas and dust. Those Hubble images specifically are sent down to earth and then colorized by NASA: false representations of our universe passed off as a scientific document. The seductive colors used are arbitrarily applied to the original black and white images. They are then consumed as coffee table books by the masses, or on the Internet, giving us a glimpse into the vastness and spectacle of what we know through the photographic image.
These particular images seem to have become ingrained in our cultural consciousness. They are a representation of astronomy [and] science, and a testament to man’s technological prowess and his assertion over nature. It seemed fitting to appropriate these photographs to subvert to my particular ends, to reflect on my own powerlessness in this vast cosmic sea and to decimate the authority of the photograph as a representational tool.
As for harvesting the bacteria, in your interviews with Slate and Feature Shoot you’ve mentioned about getting them from motel hot tubs, glory holes, and other offbeat, often intimate places. Why these sources? How do you go about gathering them, and what are your safety precautions? Where do you store the bacteria-laden film and for how long do you let it settle before you scan for final prints?
The act of collecting bacteria is quite simple as microorganisms are the dominant life force on this planet. Bacteria are everywhere and on everything around you. It is often said that bacteria outnumber human cells 10 to 1 in the body. You have between 500-1,000 different species in your gut alone. They were here long before us and will be here after we’re gone. They live in the harshest environments and in the most barren places. They have more of a biomass than all plant and animals on earth combined. Yet, with today’s technology we have a hard time even estimating how many different species of bacterium there are in the world. The sheer diversity of bacteria and the fact that they are invisible to the naked eye, being only a few microns thick, make it impossible to know how many there are out there.
I simply find a location or object, take a sterile cotton swab, and swipe. There are inevitably bacteria collected in that small simple action. The project began by swabbing ubiquitous objects and places like my iPhone or light switches. However, I realized that the location and the act of swabbing for bacteria was itself becoming a performative gesture. It was an act of exploration and a personal confrontation with a lifelong neurosis and anxiety over germs. I began to find and swab locations in order to push myself to the edge of discomfort. This unseen performance on my part exists for the viewer only through the title, but it takes the work out of a clinical or scientific reading and into a human experience.
I’m fascinated in exploring intimate, private, and unseen spaces and using them to create and grow these tangible artworks. I seek to confront, interrogate, or lampoon the historical notion of the body as abject by swabbing various parts my own body or even other bodies. I will also hunt for exotic locations to swab that deal with our baser bodily instincts. At times I will set out to find bacteria to specifically pair with an image to create some juxtaposition. Other times, the bacteria choice for an image is an instinctual response to a visual trigger.
Once the bacteria are swabbed and collected, I coat a thin layer of nutrient agar chemistry onto the photographic film to act as a breeding ground for the bacteria. The bacteria grow and multiply from the sustenance of the agar and in a matter of days can develop into colonies large enough to see with the naked eye. As they breed, the bacteria become more aggressive in their interaction with the film emulsion, attacking the surface and stripping away color layers into abstraction.
When I swab an environment for these microorganisms, I am clueless as to what is actually there. Some bacteria species seem to grow faster than others, have different colors, or deteriorate the film’s emulsion differently. Some bacteria respond only to certain types of agar. Trying to control this uncertainty is a satisfying, if not futile, endeavor as an artist. The outcome is often unexpected in many ways, but perhaps it’s a sort of collaboration with these tiny creatures. It’s an intractable push and pull to try and create order from chaos and disorder. I have little interest in determining the exact species of bacterium from each location; the satisfaction I feel as an artist comes from the experience of discovery and curiosity, growing something unforeseen out of something invisible and unseen.
I can exert some control to be sure, based off of how I apply the bacteria onto the film, what temperature I let them grow in, and when I decide that the piece is ultimately finished. I kill the bacteria in the process of scanning the film, ensuring that there will be no more growth. The bacteria do seem to multiply faster in humid and dark environments. I’ve been utilizing incubators for some specimens and have garbage bags full of Petri dishes and Tupperware baking in the trunk of my car in the hot Florida sun. But ultimately, it’s the unpredictable gestures of nature that create the most complex and aesthetically pleasing images.
There are garbage bags full of Petri dishes and Tupperware containers with bacteria growing on film in the trunk of my car, under my kitchen sink, in my bathroom, and in my artist studio. Because of the unpredictability and lack of control, many of these will not end up being aesthetically interesting enough to satisfy my artistic tastes and will not make the final cut. Some of them have been growing for almost a year now.
As far as safety precautions, I’ve always got nitrile gloves with me, various masks when actually dealing with the bacteria once they’ve grown into colonies, etc. I may often speak about this project in a cavalier fashion, but I enjoy my good health and take every step to ensure I stay that way.
Looking through your online portfolio, we saw that you also have another series that’s quite related to “Cosmos,” which is “Parasites.” As with “Cosmos” above, kindly walk us through your process with regard to this series.
Certainly. The process of creating these images has a few steps. I first had to acquire these specimens. It was important that I only photographed parasites that affected humans as the original inspiration came from confronting a childhood fear. My first specimens came from Etsy, which has a surprisingly active Cabinet of Curiosities community. I then started working with scientists and parasitologists at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who were quite helpful and unexpectedly excited about the project. In addition to the specimens acquired from the University, I was also put in contact with scientists at the National Institute of Health who kindly mailed more specimens to me.
After acquiring these parasitic animals, I brought them over to the Lisa Muma Weitz Laboratory for Advanced Microscopy & Cell Imaging at the University of South Florida. I had previously collaborated with scientists and lab technicians there for a previous series, where I photographed my body on a cellular level. While there, I went through the process of posing and dehydrating the specimens before putting them into the imaging bay of the Scanning Electron Microscope.
The Electron Microscope that was used is an ingenious piece of technology and can enhance your subject by 300,000×. However, the process of using such a machine is rather lengthy. Sometimes it would take me a whole day to get one acceptable image.
This work isn’t strictly 19th century process. I take the original image of the parasite with contemporary technology – in this case, the Scanning Electron Microscope – before it’s exposed onto a ferrotype plate. This is a means to expand and redefine photography by combining historical process with contemporary imaging technology. The work investigates what constitutes photography in the 21st century, how the history of photography has been tied to its technological constraints, and how we can now subvert and play with these particular barriers while questioning the broader purpose of photography itself.
By using technology like the Scanning Electron Microscope, a device that creates an indexical image without the use of light, I can call into question many assumptions about the evolution of photographic technology and photographic seeing. By merging this imagery with historical process, in this case the ferrotype, I can give a historical foundation on which to build.
One of the reasons I’m specifically attracted to 19th century processes like dry plate gelatin or wet plate collodion is the amount of chance and control that are involved. Each time you pour a plate with dry plate or wet plate, it will come out differently. The swirls, bubbles, and lines create a visual pattern and language that cannot be reproduced. I find that this language of the process subverts any notion of scientific authority by pointing to myself as subjective author, as amateur scientist. You’ll even notice the mark of my fingerprints etched into the emulsion around the edges (a visual marker that somehow makes its way into a number of my works). I find this infinitely more satisfying visually than a straight digital image from a microscope that would seem cold and clinical. My role as author is evident; the image is not only about the parasite in question but my quest to index it. I use myself as a character in regards to all of my works.
After getting an image from the microscope that I am satisfied with, I would turn it into a film positive to be exposed onto the dry plate gelatin ferrotypes in the darkroom. I experimented with various dry plate formulas for weeks before I found the right one. The process of creating a ferrotype acceptable to me as an artist takes time. As stated before, each time you pour a plate, it comes out differently. Finding the right combination of visual irregularities in this process takes a while. The aberrations of the dry plate gelatin process should complement the parasitic image, not detract from it.
After creating a ferrotype I find acceptable, I scan it with a high-powered scanner and print the image digitally. The original intent was to just show the plate, but I found the image had so much more power at four feet instead of the more intimate 4×5” plate size. Printed large, the animals confront their viewer at a one-to-one scale.
We think it’s interesting that you have these two series, yet when you were younger you apparently were a germaphobe, according to interviews you’ve had with other online magazines. How difficult had it been for you when you began doing these series? What made you decide to push through with it in the first place? Would you say that photography is somehow a means for you to confront your personal fears?
I use art making as a means to investigate the universe around me in order to understand, document, and question my existence. To this end, I’m using photography to confront my neurosis and fears of these invisible and unseen phantoms that have haunted my life. As stated previously, I push myself to the edge of discomfort in the spaces that I go to swab for bacteria as it challenges me personally. Ultimately, this action helps produce a more complex work of art. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily difficult to start making work dealing with these issues, but it is certainly the most fulfilled I have ever felt as an artist. I’m making this work, first and foremost, for myself and, in the process, learning and maturing as a human being.
Photography has allowed me to grow as I interact with this much larger world out there, and that in itself is a strange and beautiful privilege. I don’t take that for granted.
Moving forward, we also saw that you have employed early forms of photography in your work. Despite the existence of other, more modern forms of photography, what is your motivation in continuing to incorporate these in your work?
I think the popularity of companies like Lomography prove that there is a deep desire for analog photography to exist in some capacity in a tangible, material form. As vernacular photography moves forward into the ethereal digital cloud of the 21st century, we hold onto material photography even more firmly. This is evidenced by the work being made in fine arts communities in relation to photography and object-hood, and in the meteoric rise in popularity of alternative process photography. I think there is a certain satisfaction derived from creating work that has some sort of tangible physical presence and there is a deep longing to hold onto that by photographers around the world.
As I’ve stated previously, I’m interested in expanding the vocabulary of photography by re-imagining the role for these processes, as the cultural perception and function of obsolescent analog photographic technology has changed in this digital age of 2015. These material processes can now be liberated from their historic burden as a primarily indexical tool.
In “Cosmos,” I’m interested in pushing photographic film out of its historic purpose by using it as a breeding ground for tangible life to grow and multiply. The radical re-envisioning of these antiquated tools has, of late, become a central theme within contemporary photography. There has been a host of exhibitions over the past few years, like “What is a Photograph?” at the International Center for Photography or “Surface Tension” at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, to name a couple, that have assembled groups of artists reconsidering the material possibilities of this constantly evolving medium. Fine art photography is at an exciting and expansive crossroads as our cultural expectations about what a photograph can be are radically shifting.
It’s the very obsolescence of this analog technology that excites me as a lens-based artist in the 21st century. Rosalind Krauss once wrote about moving film, which applies here to analog photography, saying that there is vast “imaginative capacity stored within this technical support and suddenly made retrievable at the moment when the armoring of technology breaks down under the force of its own obsolescence.” By experimenting with photography’s anachronistic materials we are, in fact, breaking down the structural forces of the medium’s technological constraints, and sifting through the pieces for a means to expand the vocabulary of photography while searching for an enigmatic meaning buried somewhere in the antiquated remains.
What inspires you? Who are the photographers and artists that you look up to and inspire you?
I’m a nerd and I’ve always been a nerd. As a child, I had this precocious desire to explore and figure out how things worked. I collected bugs, rocks, fossils, everything I could get my hands on. Cataloging these objects from the nature was a way for me to make sense of this larger world I didn’t understand. So it’s not surprising that as an artist, I’m still driven by this insatiable curiosity to figure out how things work. My artist practice is driven by this curiosity. This is perhaps why I became so enamored with photography: it is a means of giving order to the world and to ephemeral and fleeting moments. It is a means to order and document. I use photography to explore, classify, and understand the world around me as I attempt to satiate my inquisitive spirit. The things that inspire me and drive my artist practice are really just simple questions about the nature of the things around me. And often, these questions become experiments and these experiments turn into art objects and portfolios of work.
As I’ve stated, I’m also deeply interested in the role of materiality in the context of contemporary photography. I deeply admire photographers and artists like Jeremy Bolen, Matthew Brandt, Marco Breuer, Chris McCaw, Aspen Mays, John Opera, and Letha Wilson who experiment with and strip analog photography from its original function into a tactile expression of material. These artists are subverting the original function of their respective processes and creating an art object. Many of them are also simultaneously dealing with photography and its relationship to science and the natural world as well. The progressive vision of these artists inspires me as they are looking towards the future of photography while carrying a reverence for the medium’s history into the present.
Out of curiosity, do you have any interesting and/or memorable story that you could share with us while doing “Cosmos” or “Parasites” (or your work in general)?
Sure, I may have too many stories. Here are a few brief moments that stick out in my head:
- While taking a two-foot guinea worm out of a jar, it wrapped around my arm and I had an anxiety attack.
- The only time anybody has paid any attention to my swabbing for bacteria was at Disney World. Within five minutes of swabbing my first ride, I had security come up to me.
- Getting a call from my landlord because there was a package with a Hazmat label from the CDC on my front door (they were samples of parasites specimens sent by a scientist).
- Getting a prostate biopsy specifically to photograph it under the scanning electron microscope for my self-portrait series.
What could we look forward to from you next? Also, if you have any current and/or upcoming exhibits and/or projects you’d like to promote, please feel free to do so!
It’s hard to say anything specific in regards to what’s next at the moment. I still have hundreds of bacteria-laden strips and slides of film gestating and feel that there is much more I can accomplish within this body of work. However, I am a constant tinkerer and have many failed experiments in my artist studio and darkroom that may find their way into my photographic works.
Whatever comes next, two things are certain:
- I’m still interested in exploring photography’s complex relationship to the invisible and unseen.
- I will continue to explore how I can manipulate and re-imagine obsolescent analog photographic processes in a contemporary fine arts context.
Marcus DeSieno is a photographer based in Tampa, Florida. All information and photographs in this article were exclusively provided to Lomography by the photographer and used with permission. To see more of DeSieno’s work, please visit his website. You may also check out our primer, “Marcus DeSieno’s Cosmos”. Please do not take anything out of this feature without permission.