From his modest home studio, Linden Gledhill has gone beyond the familiar to meticulously document the intricacies and surprising expanses of the microscopic world. From photographing crystallized DNA for Autism Speaks and creating imagery for Jon Hopkins’ Immunity project to morphing ferrofluid monsters for science fiction special effects, Linden’s abilities and sensibilities are anything but ordinary. Taking us from the beginnings of his love for optics to the progression of his work as an artist, Linden talks changes of scale and having the right tools for a project.
FCLTY: Tell us about your scientific background and the path that led you to using the microscope as a creative lens. Was it something you always did or was there a certain discovery that set you on this path?
I’m a PhD biochemist and now work for GSK to develop biopharmaceuticals, large protein molecules, to treat cancer, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve actually never really used microscopes professionally, but I’ve always been interested in the optics of both telescopes and microscopes; in my early teens I even ground an 8 inch mirror to make my own Newtonian reflector telescope. I’ve also always taken photographs, I think from the age of about 12 onwards.
FCTLY: It sounds like you were a precocious 12-year old. What was it about optics that really excited you?
One of my favorite memories was the very first time I attached my toy microscope to the back of an old camera lens and managed to view the rings of Saturn through my bedroom window.
I was fascinated by the way they enable the human eye to see beyond the visible. It’s really amazing to think that the glass of a microscope lens provides the means to gather additional photons and funnel them in the right way into your eye. The lens becomes an extension of the natural optics of your eye and the photons gathered come directly from the object.
In recent years, the revolution of digital photography has made a lot of techniques much more feasible. Things like stitching panoramas, making focus stacks and the hit and miss challenges of high speed photography. Though I have no formal training in any of these techniques or equipment, I’ve invested in a couple of high end research microscopes over the last 5 years or so and this is what has led to much of my recent work.
FCTLY: You’ve got a wide-ranging scope of projects to your name. Can you describe the process of taking on a new project? How involved are you in the creative process?
Each project is unique so it really depends on which one. I often explore subjects such as ferrofluid, butterfly wings, and food dyes and crystals. These then attract attention on the Internet and this is what brings in new collaborators.
Honestly, without the Internet the work likely wouldn’t be seen and would be just for my own pleasure, which is also totally fine.
However, the most exciting thing now for me is seeing who will contact me next for something challenging.
Typically an artist or agency contacts me with a project and we go from there. My skill set is fairly unusual— I can build equipment and technical effects, know the biology and chemistry to really develop the concept, and can create the images with a strong creative eye. At this point, I’m pretty comfortable collaborating with other artists, film directors, special effects teams and commercial teams. It’s kind of funny since everything occurred organically as a natural extension of my own curiosity. I’m just driven by my appreciation of the beauty around us, both natural and manmade.
For my commercial promotional or branding projects, the end goals are typically well-defined. I often work with story boards that are targeting specific promotional messages and well-defined themes. So in these cases I don’t have control over the take away message, although in most cases I do have a major input into how it is delivered as part of a creative team.
FCTLY: That sounds really exciting and I imagine few biochemists get to work with musicians and special effects teams.
Certainly, from my experience I’ve gotten quite good at translating an idea and vision into reality. For example, for the Jon Hopkins Immunity album cover and promotional video, I translated the feelings that Jon communicated about his music into shapes, colors and movement in the form of chemical reactions. I then worked with Craig Ward, a typographer and director whose been one of my long-standing collaborators, who then designed the final album cover and video sequence.
My ongoing project with Craig is also really cool. I created a series of ferrofluid shapes about a year ago for a horror film called 12km. Craig knew he wanted to work with them but it took over a year for the idea to gel. Together we created an other-worldly ferrofluid typeface called Fe2O3 glyphs that raised $50,000 on Kickstarter. To form the glyphs, a tiny amount of ferrofluid was placed between two glass plates and subjected to a combination of spinning vertical and horizontal magnetic fields. The result is an array of complex hieroglyphics and shapes, each one as unrepeatable as a snowflake. At once, they call to mind ancient indigenous markings or symbols from science fiction. You can use them as a digital font or purchase a set of letterpress art prints. They’re even printed with a bit of ferrofluid in the ink itself.
FCTLY: Do you think your personal role as a scientist has changed? Has your creative work added to or changed your role in any way?
I don’t think my work has changed me as I’ve always seen the unique and extraordinary beauty that surrounds us. To me, art and science are all part of a creative process. Science expands human knowledge, creates solutions to problems, and provides humans with physical products and new capabilities. But it can also create new problems, controversy and moral dilemmas.
In many ways art and science do the same things—I think they are both natural consequences of human evolution and intrinsically intertwined.
Although science is based on the scientific method, creativity is at its heart, especially when developing the right questions, designing experiments and formulating testable predictions. Some of the biggest advancements are made by people creatively connecting ideas across very different disciplines. Personally, I spend a significant amount of time exploring new ideas in my scientific work through visualization.
FCTLY: Part magician and part engineer, you’ve had to learn a variety of techniques to grow ice crystals on command, image food coloring in technicolor and turn ferrofluid into glyphs. How has this material manipulation increased or changed your understanding and appreciation for natural processes that make up our world?
The more I explore, the more I want to explore, and the more I realize that if you put your mind to something it typically can be achieved. But very little is truly new, and so I utilize a lot of scientific literature and have a good sense of how to achieve something using typical household items. I’m just harnessing something that is driven by the fundamental laws of nature and that has surprises at every turn.
You also realize how scale really doesn’t mean anything, because something under a microscope can look like the vastness of the universe.
FCTLY: You seem to have a deep fascination with these changes in scale. Does your work afford you new perspectives on the world around us because of the way you encounter scale?
I think it helps me appreciate how insignificant we are and how over inflated we have become in the way we view our importance as individuals and as a species. It’s a perspective that helps to keep me grounded and allows me to focus on exploring and appreciating the present rather than worrying about what it all means. Not that I don’t think about the big questions, it’s more about not dwelling on wanting to know the answers. From an inspiration perspective, it reassures me that I’ll never run out of new things to explore and discover.
FCTLY: There’s a humbleness to your work in the way that even in extraordinary color and composition, the work seems real and palpable. Is that intentionally captured or simply a natural result of very real processes?
Many of the subjects I explore create their own forms, which can only be partly controlled, like the Autism Speaks work with crystallized DNA for example. However, I’m very selective in the composition of the framing to create an iconic feeling for the work. And yet, the first time I actually observed DNA crystallization for myself I got goose bumps. Sure, it’s a well-studied subject, but seeing it with your own eyes is truly magical.
FCTLY: Letting us see it with our eyes has been magical as well. What is coming up for you and what are you most excited to explore further?
That’s very difficult to predict. My projects, to date, have been very diverse and I don’t think any of them were planned or could be predicted. I will definitely go back to studying DNA when I have some time as I’ve only scratched the surface of its potential. I’d also like to take my high-speed insect flight rig back to the Amazon or somewhere similar at some point. For me, there’s a lot more that both my eyes and lenses yearn to see.