The Use of X-ray as Art


In my younger years I was Professor of Surgery at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine with a research interest in  wound healing.  I was also a serious photographer and had studied with local photographer Eugene Delcroix; it was thrilling to attend one of the last workshops that Ansel Adams,  the American master, actually taught.

My medical research attempted to speed the helaing of wounds. When an incision is made thousands of blood vessels are cut; fortunately only the larger ones usually bleed,  and they have to be closed off by ligation with thread or fulguration  with an electrosurgical machine. Part the healing process is regrowth of  arteries, veins, and capillaries into the wound. I decided to study this phenomenum, hoping to find a way to accelerate the process.

This  type of  research is now a large field called angiogenesis.  In the 1960’s  it had no name and I called it Vascularization of wounds. I  decided to use an X-ray technique (micoaangiography) to visualize the very small blood vessels ( arteries and veins  down to 100 microns in diameter); capillaries are too small to be seen by this technique.

My early work1  showed that new vessels appear in as early as 3 days, and can completely bridge  the wound in as little as 7 days, possibly adding some strength to the wound. My images were striking, and reminded some of Jackson Pollock’s abstract art.

I then began to make X-rays of  flowers and shells, thinking I was the first person in the world to do that.

There is an old saying in academic surgery “If you think you have discovered a new procedure (operation, way to tie a knot, etc.), all it means is that you have not read the German literature”. That was true in the 1920s and 30s as at that time Germany was the undisputed leader in the evolving field of  operative surgery, now unquestionably held by the USA.

For X-ray art  the originators were French and American,2,3. In 1913 2 an article was published in the French literature about the use of X-ray in biology. In the article there is an image which appears to be an X-ray of a leaf; the image is not labeled, and  there is no description of the equipment or technique used to make the image.

In 1914 Edwards3 published X-rays of flowers as art, but I was not aware of that work until I began researching the literature for a book I was writing on X-ray Art4

           My early images of shells and other “hard” objects were good, but I realized that to image “soft” objects like flowers or textiles ,I I would need “soft X-rays” , obtainable only from special machines designed for operation at low kilovoltage and with a beryllium window to let the radiation out. Such units are used in modern hospitals mainly  for the study of  breasts , both of the intact breast (mammography) and specimen radiography, mainly of breast biopsies taken at surgery.

I Since I needed the “soft” Xrays to obtain the best microangiograms of  healing wounds, I applied for and received  an NIH grant to purchase a Faxitron, a precision X-ray machine made for specimen radiography. I used it mainly for the microangiograms of wounds, but also was able to use it on flowers and other objects.

Although modern X-ray machines are digital, all of my images have been made on film and developed in trays. In my early work I had problems with uneven backgrounds—streaks of lighter densities. This was solved by using rotating drums for development. Using conventional trays, the problem can be ameliorated, but not eliminated, by presoaking the film in plain water before development.

All X-ray images, whether recorded on film, paper, or digitally are negative, meaning that the background is black, and the object white. In my early work I placed the X-ray films in an enlarger and made positive images on photographic paper. Such images have white backgrounds and black images.

Most physicians were trained to read the original X-ray film negatives and to many of them only negative images look right.  As art either positive or negative images can be used, and I generally prefer positive ones. I find that when physicians purchase my prints to decorate their offices or homes, they generally want negative images. This however is changing; with digital radiography, it is easy to produce positive images, and many radiologists are finding it easier to interpret such images.

  1.   Myers, M.B. and Cherry, G. Blood supply of healing wounds:  functional and  angiographic  Archives of Surgery 62:49-52 1971

2.. Goby  la microradiographie  et ses applicatios a l’anatomie vegetale Bull Soc. Franc Photogr 4:310-312 1913

3.J. Hall-Edwards The Radiography of Flowers  Arch. Of Roentgen Ray 19:30-31 1914

4. Myers, Bert The Inner Beauty of Nature X-ray Photography Applejack Art 2007

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Source by Bert Myers