How to Train Your Sea Anemone

How do you make a tiny anemone look like it’s leaning nonchalantly against a wall with arms crossed and a clever smile?

Odd couple. The model organism and the biologist

Odd couple. The model organism and the molecular biologist

Answer: With great difficulty.

Conceptually relevant portraiture of scientists is a tough discipline, which often ends in horrible clichés and/or tragedy. Do a google image search for the term “scientist” – then try not to gouge out your eyes with a broken test tube.

I do quite a lot of science portraits, I have done it for years – and I still find it really difficult to produce consistently interesting results which don’t rely on clichés or cheap gimmicks. With some clients, and especially the annual report assignments, the job tends to centre around the same type of research, the same people, the same labs year after year.

Live brine shrimp eggs. It's like candy

Live brine shrimp eggs. It’s like candy

Some months ago I was hired to make a portrait of the molecular biologist Fabian Rentzsch for the annual report of Uni Research. I’ve taken Mr. Rentzsch’s portrait at least once before, and the lab setting of rows upon rows of small tanks with model organisms were very similar to those that had featured prominently in other environmental portraits for the same client. So I was looking for a drastically different solution.

Then I had the incredibly stupid idea of posing the scientist and his model organism in the same manner for a double portrait. Stupid because trying to coax the Nematostella Vectensis, a creature just 15 mm (half an inch) long, to do as you tell it just ain’t especially easy. And accidentally sucking it (and its sibling!) into the pipette you’re using to manage the Petri dish studio doesn’t help its mood. But with time comes results. Time and treats that is. Now who wants a live brine shrimp egg? Do you want a live brine shrimp egg? That’s a good boy!

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