Nick Veasey: X-Ray Photographer


Nick Veasey calls himself the original x-ray nerd. Having spent over a decade obsessively chronicling thousands of objects through x-ray photography, it's an appropriate label. While our society is taught to concern itself with the alluring surface of things, Veasey uses industrial x-ray machines to peel back those upper layers, often revealing a far more beautiful, and complex, underside. Having produced the largest x-ray photograph ever—a Boeing 777 that required over 500 separate x-rays of individual elements—one would think Veasey had reached his summit. As the slideshow and interview below reveals, he's only just getting started.

Cool Hunting: You were formerly an advertising photographer. Advertising is all about creating desire, most often through seductive imagery. How did you make the transition from looking at the surface of objects, to looking beneath?

Nick Veasey: I never really did classical ‘glossy’ advertising type photography. I don’t really like the synthetic look that over manipulated images have. In particular I hate the advertising aimed at men and the worst example of this is Gillette. It is so contrived and cheesy. I dabbled with ‘conventional’ photography by using a camera and film, but I never made conventional imagery. That part of my career was all about experimentation and abstraction.

Moving from abstraction to x-ray was difficult as x-ray is very much a technical process. You have to understand the physics and chemistry of it all. I’m no Einstein so this part was hard. But like most things, the best way to learn is by practical involvement. The more I do it, the better I get. Conceptually speaking, the looking beneath the surface analogy has many avenues to explore. I’ve only just started…

CH: Once you embarked upon this new artistic trajectory, did you—and do you continue to—find yourself looking at the world differently?

NV: You bet. I find myself considering most things in x-ray vision. I can make educated guesses as to what things look like in x-ray. Often I’m wrong – which is good and keeps my feet on the ground. The difficult issue for me is to keep focused on a particular project. So many things that I come across tempt me to pick them up and x-ray them that I get distracted from any particular themed project I may be working on. I’m 46 and my mind is still very active and open to influence. I do find that, in this age of information overload, I’ve had to develop this filtering process. If an idea keeps nagging at me, then I’ll do it. But as I have so many ideas I have to let most fall into the ether and only commit to the ideas that won’t go away, they keep nagging me. So I do them. As I get older my main objective is to do better work, but more slowly, making my results more beautiful and more challenging.

Most of the images that bombard us all are ‘aspirational’. I want to be sexy, cool, thin, younger… My work is real. X-Ray is an honest process. It shows things for what they are, what they are made of. I love that. It balances all that glossy, superficial bollocks. I’m real and straightforward. And so is my work.

Click through for the full interview.

CH: You’ve photographed hundreds of objects, from insects to airplanes. What kind of aesthetic concerns / preoccupations guide your topical decisions?

NV: My process has technical limitations and I have to be realistic in my ambitions, or apply lateral thinking, to the complicated works. These constraints often throw up interesting results. I’m not that interested in using x-ray to shock, as too much art tries too hard to bludgeon a message home. Shock and gore is easy with x-ray. I like to create intrigue and beauty. I’m not the most methodical person. I tend to be doing too many things at any one time. From this mess comes order though. I’ve learnt to be receptive to the stream of thoughts that bring forward a project that stimulates me.

Like most artists I feel driven to connect with people through my work. I’m excited to have the opportunity to create a project, or body of work that can make people think beyond the veneer of normality. I expose things, open them up for inspection, or at least show them in another light. All my pieces do this, but when a cohesive and relevant emotion is transferred to someone you don’t know through the fusion of science and art, then, at that point, I’m a happy man.

CH: Looking over your work, there appears to be two thematic preoccupations. On the one hand, there is the documentarian, chronicling the hidden treasures of the things that surround us. On the other hand, there is your work with the human figure, where you often create elaborate scenes that replicate our daily activities. What is it you hope to reveal through either of these approaches?

NV: When working with the everyday stuff that surrounds us my basic thought is to try to make us think of all that goes into a subjects design. Why does it have that form? How does it work? What is it made of? Everything is designed, either by man or by nature. I like to reveal that design, make us appreciate or wonder at what goes on inside.

My main motivation in using the human figure in x-ray is to challenge society’s obsession with the image. Why is it so important to look a certain way? Inside we all function the same way and I think it is not a person’s face or ‘look’ that makes them what they are.

CH: Apart from the obvious question of size, what kind of challenges do you face in capturing such a wide variety of objects? For example, do you have to treat organic materials such as fruits and flowers differently than household appliances?

NV: I could bore you for hours with technical challenges. But that isn’t important at the end of the day. What matters to me is the picture. Rest assured I spend days farting about trying different x-ray machines and different ways of preparing and approaching my subjects. I am the original x-ray nerd. But to be really into something you have to go through that obsessive phase.

CH: Are there any sky-is-the-limit, money-no-object subjects you dream of tackling?

NV: Are you kidding? Of course. Please God let me loose in The Museum of Natural History. Or give me Access All Areas at NASA.

I’m British and will be leaving my mark on an iconic piece of British design soon. It’s a few years work, but I’m making slow progress as at the moment. Money, in reality, is the main reason why progress is slow. There are cheaper ways to make pictures than what I do.