This Photographer is Printing Photos on Algae – And it’s Awesome!

Russell Marx is a photographer who has been experimenting with using algae as the medium for printing his photos.

Russell Marx is a photographer who has been experimenting with using algae as the medium for printing his photos.

“I’ve always liked biology, and inspired by microbial art. I looked for a way to merge photography and science. I recall a biology class where we put foil over leaves to make stamp patterns in the chlorophyll. So rather than bleaching unmasked chlorophyll, I came up with a plan to instead grow an image out of algae, which would give me a smoother and more uniform canvas and more control over contrast.” Marx said in an interview with PetaPixel.

Here is one of Marx’s algae photos:

So how does he do this and can anyone do this? I’ll explain in a second but the answer to the second part of the question is: Yes!

Ok, so here’s how this works. Rather than exposing light-sensitive chemicals on photographic paper, you can expose algae – which is a light-sensitive living organism – on a Petri dish.

Put your nerd hat on for a bit and buckle up because it’s about to get science-y!

Most species of algae float while suspended in water – they need to be in water in order to grow. Without water, they will remain dormant. The water also allows them the space to grow.

Nannochloropsis growing in a 500 ml beaker

While growing in the water, the algae cells will move as they float – since the cells are lighter than water – which defeats the purpose of the end goal: to get the algae to grow in specific place in order to develop the photograph clearly.

The solution that Marx discovered – which is actually pretty genius – was to find a specie of algae that sank and could still grow instead of floating, suspended in the water. The species? Chlorella. Here’s how he did it in his own words:

“A clear image will only form if the algae stays in place, so my first plan was to embed the algae in an agar gel so it wouldn’t float away. Luckily, one single cellular species (Chlorella vulgaris) was heavier than water and sank to the bottom of the dish, leaving a container of clear clean water with a dark green layer of algae on the bottom. This property allowed me to simply thoroughly mix the algae and water, let it settle, and put it under the enlarger without worrying about immobilizing it.” – Marx told PetaPixel in an interview.

In short – the film negative was projected onto a glass Petri dish using an enlarger. Since algae grows faster when it is exposed to light Marx explains what happened next:

“Algae grows faster when it receives more light, so algae under a bright spot in the image multiplied faster, and thus became darker, inverting the negative and creating a green-tinted positive image.”

Here is the negative photograph that Marx used:

Here’s how he projected the negative photo onto the glass Petri dish:

A closer look at the Petri dish being exposed to light:

Here is the final result:

Pretty awesome right?

If you want to try this on our own, here are a few takeaways from Marx’s experience in getting the end result:

Use a Glass Petri Dish Instead of a Plastic One

Marx said that he used plastic Petri dishes with his first attempt, but he ran into a problem. Since algae turns CO2 into oxygen through photosynthesis, it turned out that the plastic bottom of the Petri dish has an affinity of oxygen. This caused little oxygen bubbles to stick to the bottom of the dish, leaving little holes in the image. He got around this by using a glass Petri dish, which is smooth enough so that bubbles never form and the image comes out clean.

Use an Exposure Time of 1 Week

While a typical enlarger exposure may run seconds or minutes, in order to “expose algae” for this purpose, an exposure time of one week was necessary. This is how long it takes for the algae to grow enough for a strong image to appear.

How to Preserve Your Algae Photograph and Remove the Water

The final product is a thin layer of algae film in the bottom of a water-filled, glass Petri dish. At this point in order to preserve your algae photograph, you will need to use a pipette and carefully remove the water. Once you have done that, you can pour resin over the algae in the glass Petri dish in order to preserve it.

Although this is not directly related to conservation, this project intrigued me quite a bit which is why I wrote this blog post about it. In 2015 I was conducting several breeding projects in an aquaculture facility where I learned all about algae, how to grow it, it’s nutritional value, etc. Here’s the full story:

The more that people learn about and experiment with algae, the closer we will get to a better understanding of how to use more organic materials instead of non-biodegradable solutions. This project will hopefully inspire others to experiment with algae and find some really cool uses for it moving forward.

If you are interested, I offer a course on how to grow different species of algae through my How to Grow Live Food course for aquarists. If you are interested in getting started with growing your own algae, check out my online course: https://aquapparel.teachable.com/p/live-food

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