About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline

« More Statin Skirmishing | Main | Down the Chute: Your Call »

July 7, 2006

Memo to the Public Relations Department

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Posted by Derek

After seeing a recent in-house promotional brochure, I'd like to issue a brief request on behalf of my fellow researchers. This is addressed to all professional photographers: please, no more colored spotlights.

I know that you see this as a deficiency, but scientists do not work with purple radiance coming from the walls behind them. Not if we can help it, we don't, and if we notice that sort of thing going on, we head for the exits. In the same manner, our instruments do not, regrettably, emit orange glows that light our faces up from beneath, not for the most part, and if they start doing that we generally don't bend closer so as to emphasize the thoughtful contours of our faces. When we hold up Erlenmeyer flasks to eye level to see the future of research in them, which we try not to do too often because we usually don't want to know, rarely is this accompanied by an eerie red light coming from the general direction of our pockets. It's a bad sign when that happens, actually.

I know that your photos have lots more zing and pop the way you do them. And I'm sorry, for you and for the art department, that our labs are all well lit (with boring old fluorescent lights, yet), and that we all wear plain white lab coats (which tend to take over the picture), and that our instrument housings are mostly beige and blue and white. It would be a lot easier on you guys if these things weren't so.

But that's how it is. And when you get right down to it, you're actually doing us a disservice by trying to pretend that there's all sorts of dramatic stuff going on, that discoveries are happening every single minute of the day and that they're accompanied by dawn-of-a-new-era lighting and sound effects. We'd rather that people didn't get those ideas, because the really big discoveries aren't like that at all. It doesn't make for much of a cover shot, but if one of us ever does manage to change the world, it'll start with a puzzled glance at a computer screen, or a raised eyebrow while looking at a piece of paper. Instead of getting noisier, everything will get a lot quieter. And if there are any purple spotlights to be seen, we won't even notice them. . .

Update: A follow-up post is here, written after several comments by photographers came in. . .

Comments (79) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. RKN on July 7, 2006 8:34 AM writes...

What - your science doesn't glow? Mine does - red, green, and blue! To boot, this morning I'm applying a deep purple stain. We're all about radiant color in proteomics. :-)

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2. Carol on July 7, 2006 9:22 AM writes...

CSI fallout. You have Jerry Bruckheimer to thank. Now viewers believe that all crime scenes are entered with the lights off and the flashlight on.

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3. Atompusher on July 7, 2006 9:28 AM writes...

So I should take the disco ball and strobe light out of my hood?

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4. The Disgruntled Chemist on July 7, 2006 10:05 AM writes...

My science glows too - it's one of the joys of atmospheric pressure plasmas. I definitely don't tend to bend in close to it, though...I like my eyebrows just the way they are.

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5. milo on July 7, 2006 10:18 AM writes...


No leave them in. I find they are good for the "joyous jig" I do when a reaction works well...

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6. MicroLabMark on July 7, 2006 10:43 AM writes...

Reminds me of the story about a photographer shooting Jonas Salk in his lab while examining a rack of tubes. The photographer kept making Salk tip the rack until it was at a very precarious angle. Apparently, this was to make Salk appear to be deep in thought about some tissue cultures of active polio virus.

As the rack continued to rotate, some tubes fell out and broke open on the floor. Salk stopped doing staged publicity photos after that incident.

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7. Marc on July 7, 2006 12:14 PM writes...

That Erlenmeyer you hold up to eye level to see the future of science, is it 3/4 full of water and food coloring by any chance ? Did you remember to put a bit of dry ice in it ?

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8. Still Scred of Dinosaurs on July 7, 2006 2:36 PM writes...

Nothing beats the shot used in TV profiles to indicate we're dealing with a smart person. You know the one where they're sitting at a computer but not actually interacting with it? Instead, they are reading something on a piece of paper.
I guess if you can read your documents away from the computer it indicates you don't have much going on in your life.

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9. Anonymous on July 7, 2006 2:59 PM writes...

Actually I do remember one of those photo-op situations when I did a summer at Brookhaven Nat'l Lab back in 1981. I was measuring the response of some photosynthesis electron transport proteins extracted from spinach leaves. The spectrophotometer was kept in a darkened room, and I put samples into a chamber cooled by dry ice (so fog was coming out) and lit by a red lamp (so as not to trigger the reaction prematurely). I remember thinking that day, "I wish I had a camera!"

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10. Abel Pharmboy on July 7, 2006 3:03 PM writes...

Derek, didn't know if you saw this already but congratulations on being ranked the #16 science blogger in the world by Nature in their recently-debated, technorati-based rankings.

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11. George Laszlo on July 7, 2006 4:46 PM writes...

Never mind the colors. How can we keep the big shots from upstairs out of the lab for the photo op?

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12. Deepak on July 7, 2006 4:53 PM writes...

Back when I actually worked in a spectroscopy lab, photographers loved taking pictures of the lasers in action on top of some smoke (dry ice if I remember correctly)

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13. srp on July 7, 2006 6:33 PM writes...

I think a picture of Vial 33 with the caption "Just more gunk...or the next miracle cure?" would be appropriate.

Seriously, I don't get most corporate publicity efforts. They always think that making the organization looks good means making their work look easy, like they have everything under control. That's fine for calming people down about nuclear power plant operations, but for building good will for most things you want to emphasize the struggle and difficulty of what you do. Think "Soul of a New Machine" or "American Steel."

When people get a sense of what's challenging about your business, they respect you more, not less. After all, we admire athletes because they do difficult things on a regular basis. And that's another reason why this blog is cool.

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14. Novice Chemist on July 7, 2006 7:41 PM writes...

While we're at it, what about all those photos and videos that show ancient PIs in lab coats in the lab or performing experiments? You know they haven't set foot in the lab in years!

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15. secret milkshake on July 7, 2006 8:49 PM writes...

For the photo-op: don't forget to put some deep-blue solution into the receiver flask of your rotavap, and put on welding-grade gogles, if you want to prove that you are a holywood-grade scientist.

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16. Jim Hu on July 8, 2006 4:30 PM writes...

LOL! I remember being told of a documentary that was made in the late 1960s or early 1970s about the groups competing to find the repressors from lac and λ at Harvard. The film crews were apparently disappointed that the solutions on the benches were all clear, so they came in and replaced them all with bottles of colored water for the filming. One of my profs at Wisconsin was in the lab at the time.

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17. Kyle Finchsigmate on July 9, 2006 2:24 AM writes...

Listen Derek, if you knew what was good for you, you would be less concerned about why our scientists are glowing in advertising pamphlets and more concerned as to why they don't glow in real life.

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18. Tracy W on July 9, 2006 5:27 PM writes...

Look out - if you start giving advice to photographers about how to do photography, they might start giving advice to you about how to do science.

"no, no, no, it may be true, but it's not beautiful."

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19. John Salmon on July 9, 2006 7:36 PM writes...

Hmm...thought it was Derek Lowe, Dodgers' pitcher. He loves the limelight and the spotlight. Far more character than your typical academic type.

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20. Jimbo on July 9, 2006 7:56 PM writes...

How about a picture of the CEO wearing heavy makeup? Fred Hassan (ex-Pharmacia, now SGP) comes to mind :-)

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21. Jal-Frezi on July 10, 2006 3:55 AM writes...

Recent promotional video shot in our lab - real, brown, uninteresting reaction shoved to back of hood out of shot. Fake permanganate and dry ice reaction at front in full view.

At least the chemistry bit had real chemists in it, every other section had a rarely-seen senior manager in a pristine lab coat standing over a lab monkey looking interested and important.

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22. bcpmoon on July 10, 2006 4:14 AM writes...

Yes Yes Yes

I wonder if the layman really thinks that these photos show real labs. Perhaps the photos even contribute to the bad image of science, since they fit to the mad scientist image. OK, real labs are, well, not so glitzy, but they are for working, aren´t they?
To watch any of the multiple forensics police work shows is a real pain for the lab practices shown. No hoods, no lab coats, insufficient lighting, etc. pp.
But my favourite is in fact "Hollow Man", this I watch whenever it is on: Bad movie, bad story and the most ridiculous lab ever seen on the big screen.

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23. Lou on July 10, 2006 4:25 AM writes...

If you ever see a person working in a tissue culture hood, and they are pipetting some pink liquid into a culture dish - the cells won't survive that. Phenol Red in the culture medium turning pink means alkaline media - cells die. Not good for us. Good for tv crews, and often used in news footage.
Had that one happen in my previous lab. The technician, who's hand was shown in the shot, and myself had a good laugh about it later.

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24. Kent on July 10, 2006 8:50 AM writes...

In my line of work, the PR people want to photograph us standing among the racks of the supercomputer, as if we routinely toggle programs directly into the motherboard of the root node. In machine language.

In reality, I type my programs into the Dell sitting on my desk in my quite ordinary office, using very generic Linux software that you can get at Walmart for $49.95, and then send it to the big computing iron over our LAN. I get to actually [i]see[/i] the supercomputer maybe once a year, and only because I volunteer to escort the local high school students on the annual tour.

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25. tom bartlett on July 10, 2006 8:51 AM writes...

"While we're at it, what about all those photos and videos that show ancient PIs in lab coats in the lab or performing experiments?"

I thought all publicity shots required the cutest asian woman you could round up.

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26. Phil-Z on July 10, 2006 12:57 PM writes...

About 15 years ago I made it into the annual report of the large New England Pharma Company. I was running a sector mass spec at the time and the gleaming stainless steel source chamber with protruding air lock looked ever so much like some kind of high tech artillery piece and was qute popular with our PR department. The shot that made the report had me crouched in front of the source, backlit with blue.

The shot was so popular it made it into at least one collection of stock photos. OTOH I thought it looked like I should be asking K-9 for the "Illudium PU-36" space modulator.

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27. Mike on July 10, 2006 4:40 PM writes...

Derek -- I see that you're taking your own monochromatic advice ... by using a black-and-white photo on this site. Not a gel in sight.

One of the earliest and most creative and successful gel-meister in high-tech photography was Roger Ressmeyer ( He's a delight to work with.

Also, for Deepak, the best way to shoot lasers in the open air is not using smoke or vapor, which makes it virtually impossible to control the intensity, uniformity or duration of the laser light that the camera sees. Rather, in a darkened room with the camera shutter open, trace the laser beam with a white card (or if the laser intensity high enought to cause the card itself to glow beyond the beam diameter, use a dark or even black card). Beam paths across the camera's field of view require more tracing (exposure) than those that are more radial w.r.t the camera's view. Beams invisible to the human eye (such as ultraviolet) may also be traced by using a fluorescent card (typically used for laser safety beam tracing) or, for imaging the infrared light from high-power carbon dioxide lasers, a carbon block. In my role as a high-tech PR person/science writer, I've produced many photos involving lasers. One of my favorites involved matching the intensity of the laser with the fluorescence it caused as it passed through a chemical in a handheld test tube.

BTW, our safety people insisted that the scientists in the photo had to wear their laser-safety goggles. In at least one case, the head of a scientist who also wore rather thick regular glasses looked like a bug-eyed insect, as a result.

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28. Dan on July 10, 2006 6:20 PM writes...

You experimentalists have all the fun. Try taking interesting photos of theoretical physicists. We can't all look like Einstein, some of us have regular haircuts and don't poke our tongues out;-).

In my other life, I'm also a photographer but prefer other subjects than my scientific colleagues:-).

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29. Anonymous on July 11, 2006 1:43 AM writes...

Well you had better be pictures in monochrome then...

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30. Doctor Curmudgeon on July 11, 2006 4:45 AM writes...

At the Curmudgeonly Institute, all of our photos are boring.

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31. symball on July 11, 2006 4:47 AM writes...

If you want to keep the big wigs away you need to resort to sabotage. A few years ago a television news company came to do a piece about one of our projects and we were hijacked by our CSO who hadn't done any 'real' work for at least ten years. We had provided some petri dishes for him to study intensely, unfortunately he didn't pay much attention to the colonies that were on it.

Cue him on the news staring at a crudely drawn phallus of E. coli!

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32. Brian Melancon on July 11, 2006 8:30 AM writes...

Yeah, purple glows are fake. But much of photography is. Supermodels don't really have flawless skin. The lighting isn't always perfect. Water droplets don't suspend themselves in mid air. People don't sit around in close groups wearing nice clothes with a painted cloth behind them while they all smile and look in the same direction.

Science is about accurately representing data.

Photography is about making in interesting image.

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33. Derek Lowe on July 11, 2006 9:48 AM writes...

Brian, it's not the fact that they're fake that gets me so much; it's that they're laughable. A cleaned-up lab bench is fakery enough, considering the conditions we usually work in. The two-scientists-thoughtfully-looking-at-the-latest-results shot is fakery, but has at least some relationship to reality.

But the purple, green, and orange gels are downright silly. Worse, from a photographer's standpoint, they're trite.

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34. SpacePhotog on July 11, 2006 10:03 AM writes...

Oh brother, you have got to be kidding. You want photographers to show researchers in their real work environment? Let me tell you what I see from the outside looking in. I enter a cramped room poorly lit by fluorescent lights. Do you know what this green light does to the complexion of a lab tech who rarely sees the light of day? Then there are the rolls of toilet paper and post-it notes that have to be removed from the scene. Next you have to hunt down a lab coat that does not have a logo from previous employers or projects. Do you know how hard it is to remove glare from coke bottle glasses?

Photos help create interest in your work. Adding a little Hollywood glitz is the price you pay if you want to continue getting paid.

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35. Chris on July 11, 2006 10:40 AM writes...

I always notice on TV that even physicists, whose normal clothing is in the jeans or khakis range, are dressed up in lab coats. Are they afraid to get atoms on themselves?

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36. Mantra on July 11, 2006 11:56 AM writes...

I worked for HP during the early years of the web and had to try to get product photos for each and every product to create product web pages. There were numerous problems the occurred but one of the most irritating was cases like the HP 33401A multimeter wrapped in bubble wrap and spotted with green and purple lights - so that it would be "artistic". And those were the *ONLY* product photo shots that existed.

Never mind that 90% of the visuals that photo series represented could be trivially duplicated from a clean, well done industrial photo series using Photoshop (available in the mid 90s).

In additional to killing the spots, also add to that:

1. Hire an industrial photographer who knows that type of photography - neither the family portrait guy down the street nor the art student from the local college are likely have a clue!

2. Make sure there are no shadows on the subject (that includes knobs and buttons in my case). Shadows can always be Photoshopped in!!

3. Photograph the subject on a neutral or better blue/green screen backdrop. This allows any background to be added in easily by Photoshop!

4. Take a series of photographs: for box-like things that should include frontal with no perspective view of rear, quarter-view left and right, rear-view if the back of the box has *anything* important or user accessible. This is only the minimum. Only after you have the basics do anything arty. And don't be suprised if I refuse to pay for the stuff that doesn't address the utilitarian needs of my company communicating to my customer to create sales.

In general though, there are *NO* *commercial* shots that can't be done better in Photoshop from good, basic industrial photography.

Sorry, it's the simple truth. If it hurts those sensitive artist souls, they should remember I'm paying and the moment they took the money they stopped being a free-spirit with complete artistic license and instead became obligated to provide service as I contracted with them.

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37. A View From The Other Side on July 11, 2006 12:03 PM writes...

Point well taken.

As a photographer, I would only note that my colleagues and I simply may have been trying to make the pictures interesting enough to bring *more* people in to read the stories. Which, of course, is where they would learn about what you were actually doing.

The profile of scientists is far too high as it is, I think. I doubt you can safely walk the streets in anonymity these days. The last thing you guys need is more visibility, what with all of the unsolicited, excess grant money rolling in. I mean, how can a scientist burn through that kind of green with just 24 hours in a day?

What the world needs is *more* photographers focusing relentlessly on the minutae of vapid celebrities. After all, they are the role models we should promote to the next generation.

Amazingly in the 21st century, some photographers are still trying to increase the interest and visibility levels of science.

What a waste.

Thanks for the heads up. I will spread the word to my colleagues.

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38. Cookie on July 11, 2006 12:19 PM writes...


Without fancy razzamatazz, how is a scientist supposed to get any play in this day and age?

BTW, could I get a touch-up on my brow, here?

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39. Hap on July 11, 2006 12:53 PM writes...

Other Side,

If you think that purple and orange lights around labs are going to raise the social status and cash flow of science, you have been breathing too much developer. Photographing things to make them pretty in order to increase the popularity of what is pictured only works when you don't obscure the nature of what you are photographing. There are ways to do photography around science that don't distort the underlying science (for example, F.Frankel - my advisor worked with her), so there isn't all that much excuse for doing otherwise. Making things pretty in unrealistic ways to attract people to science is like writing a check with insufficient funds - if it works, there will be many disappointed people whose disillusionment will only worsen rather than enhance the status of science in society. One could argue that unrealistic expectations and lack of understanding of what science can and can't do is a major part of its diminished societal status (along with dishonesty, which is mixed in here too).

Of course, the main purpose for these pictures is to attract people to buy stuff from the company whose products are pictured. The people for whom the lighting is an effective incentive to buy products are people who likely need a generous dose of disillusionment, because they are unlikely to understand what the people in the pictures are doing or what the pictured company's products can actually do. The people who do know what the pictured products do probably go, "what the &^*&?" and ignore the pretty lighting. Since the former people have, and spend, the purchasing company's money, it is important to make the pictures pretty, but the lack of understanding isn't going to help later when they wonder why their new equipment hasn't brought the miracles they expected.

If society is too fixated on its fantasies to appropriate devote resources and attention to what does it the most good, more fantasy does not seem to be an appropriate solution to the problem.

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40. V(CO)6 on July 11, 2006 8:06 PM writes...

Hi Derek:

Your comment seems to be based on the assumption that PR material should reflect reality. Hmmm..
In defense of the photographers: they are understandably more concerned with producing photographs that will please the person who is paying their fee rather than portray an accurate view of research life (not many photo op’s there!). Additionlly, the photographers are probably over influenced by fashion and advertising photography. Take a look in Vogue sometime and be happy you’re not asked to appear like that - black lipstick, spiky hair and way too thin. My apologies if you, or any reader, fits that description.

Next time suggest a photo of someone checking a TLC plate with a uv lamp (and make sure there are a lot of optical brighteners in the clothes), that should satisfy even the most colored-light-crazed photographer.

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41. daq on July 12, 2006 12:47 AM writes...

While we're at it, all college viewbooks should show students as they really are: messy, unkempt, wearing yesterday's t-shirt with questionable stains, half-drunk, etc. No diverse picnics on the quad ("Thanks, Hakeem, for that exceptionally funny joke that all cultures can enjoy!") ever again.

In fact, kill all stock photography. No shaking hands with tailored cufflinks. No spacious cubicles with the newest Apple computer. No barefoot, rustic-looking men reading their newspaper while sitting on the dock of a crystal clear lake.

I understand the sentiment and completely agree that no amount of "sexy-ing up" will make science any better. But I also don't think that the majority of people who are going into science-related fields expect the pensive-looking yet mildly attractive researcher in colored test tubes. They expect a life of khaki-colored everything - and the ability to do their passion. That being said, CSI is probably the worst thing to happen to science in hiring smarter recruits, just like Law & Order is awful for better candidates to law schools.

But the lives of designers and photographers are just as unglamorous in reality, too. We don't all wear retro glasses, play foosball in our office, run around with huge storyboards and then all go out for huge martinis. We don't causually strut around the decks of yachts off the coast of Brazil, asking for more oil on our models, chatting up the beautiful people with the cameras hanging obscenely around our neck. Our lives are spents burning retinas and silently cursing the people we work for who don't understand our job is more than making something look "pretty." Just like scientists hate the people see their job as CSI, rushing around picking up hair samples and solving crime or, worse yet, only important when a breakthrough happens.

Putting up with us and our dopey requests ("Now, I need you to look perplexed... but intelligent.") for a few hours so we can make a "pretty" brochure (which our clients will still hate) is a small price to pay so you can get back to your important work.

This blog is great, by the way.

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42. mister idea on July 12, 2006 1:37 AM writes...

Just be naked during the photo shoot. Then we'll see the real truth.

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43. Jal-Frezi on July 12, 2006 6:10 AM writes...

"Cue him on the news staring at a crudely drawn phallus of E. coli!"

hehe. We managed to sneak a drawing of a certain aromatic arsenic compound onto the fumehood being filmed. We've seen the video now and if you know what you're looking for, you can just make it out.


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44. frank Monkiewicz on July 12, 2006 1:00 PM writes...

You are correct in saying that colored lights make the lab photographs more appealing even though you do not like them. Just the same as a black and white portrait taken by a professional photographer of an author (that would be you and your photograph on the page) using studio lighting makes the person and his image to the public more 'professional'.
My 2 cents-
Frank Monkiewicz
Frank Monkiewicz Photography
243 Bent St. Studio 2
Cambridge, MA 02141

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45. Derek Lowe on July 12, 2006 2:26 PM writes...

Frank M., I take your point, although it would have more force if that photo hadn't been taken by me, in my dining room, with a time-release button. I'm glad to have it mistaken for a professional job, though; maybe I should start a photoblog on the side.

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46. erik stenbakken on July 12, 2006 6:43 PM writes...

Professional photographer here throwing my 2¢ in.

I'm to leave in a few days to photograph what I'm told is one of the world's most powerful lasers -- and the people that make it work.

I could shoot the truth (pretty boring) of people sitting around computer monitors. In. Click. Out. Done. (Or perhaps suggest a self timer?)

Funny thing happened on the way to the lab… The client (a public institution) has received millions of dollars of tax money (yours and mine) to make this lab happen. They have the misguided notion that people give a rip about where their money went. They think people actually care about the research the facility is doing and were silly enough to hire someone to come in and make it look cool and interesting. Why woud they do that? For crying out loud, if we make cool pictures that capture the essence of the real science and the imagination of the taxpayer… why, they might get MORE of my tax money.

In a selfish way, I guess it would be better for me to produce pictures that suck, look bland and flat and boring accompanied by captions summing up the sub-atomic physics being researched (in fully accurate equations, of course). THAT'LL stop them from taking my money and throwing it carelessly into science. Meanwhile, over at the Hollywood ranch, they're prepping yet another modestly attractive actress for a magazine shoot for a result that is far more unreal than any fake science shot ever seen by human eyes. Who'll get the money? Who'll make the cover?

While the point is taken about colored fluids in beakers and glowing blue walls… remember that although some of the bad annual report/brochure photography is truly misguided, there's a lot of it that is done with the (misguided?) notion that making what scientists do look mildly interesting is actually an honorable thing.

Then again, if I were a "research photographer" and not a commercial one… I'd get paid for MAYBE making a photo/discovery every few years. Then I guess I wouldn't care what kind of image was out there. Until then, I'll have to keep producing results on a daily basis for those who pay the bills.

But I'm young. I can learn new tricks.

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47. Erik on July 12, 2006 9:49 PM writes...

Plain white labcoats?

In all the lab's I've worked in, I've yet to see a single person wear a white lab coat. Cleanroom bunny suits and machinists smocks are common, in the appropriate setting, but I thought actual lab coats were something that only happened in posed photographs.

I've certainly spent far more time sitting in from of machines that generate colored glows - admittedly, usually some share of yellow or green, not the deep ruby of sf films - than I've spent in a lab coat, plain white or otherwise.

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48. Brad Goodman on July 12, 2006 10:11 PM writes...

As an engineer and a [former] executive - a word to the wise:

Let the Scientists worry about the science.

Let the Photographers worry about the photography.

Let the PR department worry about the PR.

Seriously! Impress your investors and the public. Would YOU be interested in actual photos of what goes on in your department/group/company?

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49. antiproton maker guy on July 12, 2006 10:25 PM writes...

my science glows blue, but if you see it you bargf up your insides, swell into a pink shrieking watermelon and die, only to spend the next 250,000 years stuck in a lead coffin under a nevada mountain, surrounded by used fuel rods.


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50. Chet on July 12, 2006 10:57 PM writes...

What kind of lab do you work in Erik? I'm guessing not bio or chem? White lab coats are all the rage at my lab, though tee-shirt and jeans are a close second.

On another note, what is it with people claiming that science needs be more "hollywood" to be marketable or appealing? Sure most work stations are not very visually compelling, but that's not to say that there aren't interesting images that reflect the work of scientists.

A quick google search brings up these examples:

Hell, even a simple agrose gel under the UV light is potentially attractive and reflective of actual science. Maybe focus more on the science and less on the scientists?

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51. ROSS on July 12, 2006 11:22 PM writes...

Not only science, but more mundane technologies work this way. My wife is upstairs designing auto parts production equipment right now. It's midnight. On her desk are her second vodka and grapefruit, and a small dog, asleep. If you believed commercials, things get designed by small multicultural committees of attractive, clean cut youthful people. They are wearing crisp lab coats and watch a 3D rendering of a futuristic vehicle rotate slowly in wireframe on a monitor. One leans forward to make an intelligent comment. The others nod. Nobody reaches for a cocktail.
The facts of machine production are even worse. Factories are shown as clean, orderly and well lighted places, all hard hats and safety fencing. In fact, much production equipment is made by hand by talented and experienced specialists in small shops - often one guy. Safety is nonexistent except for the fanatically cautious. Injury and mayhem are ridiculously common. You can always tell the new guy because he can count to ten with his shoes on. In place of the lab coats and monitor, envision two shoprats. They are wearing generic rock and roll t-shirts from the previous decade and appallingly filthy jeans. They are standing in a pool of cold water at a grinding machine. They've been there for hours past dark and crushed cans of energy drink float around them. Each forces a piece of machined steel against the abrasive with his bare hands and sparks cascade everywhere. When it's done he cocks his arm back and flips the red hot chunk out the window sizzling into a snow bank to cool. This seemingly crudely fashioned chunk of ferrous metal will end up in a precision assembly line machine running tens of thousands of cycles with sub-milimeter accuracy and zero breakdowns. if people knew how auto parts production really worked, the streets would be empty of cars and pedestrians would be elbow to elbow on the sidewalks.

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52. Jeremy on July 13, 2006 12:30 AM writes...

Nearly every other day of the week is filled with bright colors from the dye laser project I am working on. Most of the time I work in the dark. We use bright green lasers to pump a fluorescent dye, which has emits a bright green to a deep red laser beam. This is then converted to UV which lights up a fluorescent sample inside a small cuvette. Its all very beautiful.

I never have to wear a lab coat. I was just wearing my ninja shirt the other day. Sometimes I wish I had a lab coat after I have spilled laser dye on my clothes. It's probably a good idea to wear a lab coat in most situations involving chemicals and solvents so you don't end up poisoning yourself or others.

My lab is also very cluttered. The boss says a cluttered lab is a good sign of a productive person.

I love my job.

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53. trilln451 on July 13, 2006 12:45 AM writes...

Look, bozo, that's my THIRD (well, 2.5) cocktail, and I haven't seriously designed anything for a few weeks now.

And I HAVE been in facilities where the client hosting me was DEAD SERIOUS about having me put on the stoopid eyewear & earplugs (at the same time admitting that the hearing protection policy as actually resulted in the factory being noisierm because people assumed everyone is wearing earplugs - those dumb things make my ears ache!)

AND Wayne has a couple other guys working with him now, & the new guy is a really good, experienced machinist, who made me VERY Happy in less than 3 hours today (but I still love YOU best, darling). Also, I've never seen him (Wayne) stand in an actual puddle of water, and his girlfriend has talked into cutting off that ridiculous ponytail - much better.

As far as the energy drinks & the filthy jeans, what can I say, Harry used to be in a rock band. Old habits die hard.

I remember, years ago, when my dad brought us (mom & kids) to visit Fisher Bodies (Plant 21, Detroit). It was shadowy and noisy (not deafening, but sort of loud white noise) and carcasses of automobiles were hanging from above, like a butcher shop. And everything was generally kind of grimy, and Dad went to work everyday in a T-shirt & blue jeans. He had served a full 4-year appenticeship to become a Jig and Fixture Builder, and he could draw designs IN INK - how many laptop-wielding young turks today could even ATTEMPT to do so! And he worked out his slip angles with trig tables and a calcuator, and he told me about one time when he built a fixture using Jo blocks and a height gage, and it checked good to FOUR DECIMAL PLACES.

Computers are nifty, but what happens when there's a blackout? Old School may not look pretty, but these people know what they're doing. I'll take substance over style any day.

Apologia - methinks this is a bit far afield from the original intent of the thread. Something about scientists being photgraphed with nice colored filters? OK, consider this a Hallo from the Applied Sciences. People Magazine isn't very interested, but that's just as well - they'd just get in the way when there's work to be done.

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54. Jennie on July 13, 2006 8:01 AM writes...

So, I'd like to re-direct the conversationto your thoguhts here and about the portrayal of the science process and scientists at science centers. Its not PR, its not a lab, its education, but its fun and enagaging.

Anythoughts? Any complaints? Any wishes?

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55. ghanima on July 13, 2006 8:12 AM writes...

I'm a graphic designer, so I'm subjected to this eye-hemorrage-inducing photography practically daily and can only agree with everything you've said. While test tubes are, perhaps, "prettier" lit up with all shades of neon effects, I prefer realism in my photography. The good news is that there's a noticeable wane in this type of science-photography post-'90s. The bad news is that the old stuff is generally cheaper to purchase.

In short, blame the people funding the brochure. They probably stiffed the designer, too.

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56. No Nym on July 13, 2006 9:42 AM writes...

Well, when using a mercury arc lamp to light up a sample for immunofluorescence microscopy, we do work in dark rooms suffused with blue or green light. Oddly, that *is* what the newspaper likes to take pictures of....

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57. Shirley on July 13, 2006 10:30 AM writes...

Most of the people who are making comments have either been on one end or the other of the camera. I don't agree but I understand why people taking the photos are trying to jazz them up, I'm just wondering why the people being photographed and staged allow it? You're the scientist, you're being profiled for your work. Why are you agreeing to pose in ridiculous and unrealistic ways for someone who is being hired to profile you? Take the time to explain what it is you're actually doing and then help the photographer stage the shot. Most are reasonable enough if you tell them XYZ is not something that happens in a lab and will make you and all scientists look like idiots. Hopefully, the PR types will at the very least reconsider.

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58. NelC on July 13, 2006 10:32 AM writes...

In my design work for a cancer charity, we often had to work with photos sent in by the actual lab workers and scientists. Oh, how I dreamed of gel-lights and dry-ice vapour. Instead, when it wasn't fluorescent lighting, it was a bunch of white coats standing in front of a window (with no fill-in lights!) so that they were only dark silhouettes. Lots of Photoshop fun ensued. They often managed to include pics of two or more researchers staring thoughtfully at an electrophoresis film, though.

Of course, the amateur photography was used to send a message of its own: that we're serious researchers, not wasting money and time on airy-fairy professional photography.

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59. Donald on July 13, 2006 12:04 PM writes...

Commercial photographers are driven by what clients or buyers will pay for.

I specialize in wine photography. An obvious reality in serving wine is that you do so carefully so as not to stain that linen tablecloth, but by far my most popular images are the huge dramatic pours with the wine splashing back up out of the glass in undulating globulous forms.

I won't tell you the ridiculous lengths I have to go to in order to achieve such results, but I will tell you that if I took another picture 2 seconds after the "money shot," you would see a mess of disastrous proportions - not to mention a tragic waste of perfectly drinkable wine.

Sure, I could take a stand in the name of reality and refuse to fill the demand for such imagery - but the need to pay my mortgage and feed my kids tends to take priority.

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60. Jack on July 13, 2006 12:38 PM writes...

Just think of them as researcher boudoir photos. Nobody expects you to look like that all the time. But people can still look at the nice photos with their pretty lights and colorful flasks and sigh with longing. If only my flasks looked like that...

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61. Jake on July 13, 2006 12:48 PM writes...

Dude, if I was a scientist, I'd be rocking the white lab coat all the time! That's such a dope look! Why wouldn't you wear it?

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62. Photographer w/ gels on July 13, 2006 1:54 PM writes...

As a photographer working in higher education for 22-years, I have really enjoyed the discussion on the subject of using colored gels/liquids in labs. I feel compelled to give my 2ct if you will indulge me for a moment.

Frequently, I am called in to photograph a lab with some equipment/research that is very important and to be featured in a PR article or magazine. I frequently find myself in a cinder-block lab painted beige, with beige computers, fluorescent lights and a very expensive hunk of equipment that is really fascinating if you happen to be among the .2% of the population that knows what the heck it does. Of course the “Gee-Wizz Widget 2000” is beige as well and is sitting unceremoniously on a plank of ¾” unfinished plywood cantilevered over a 20-year-old countertop.

Sure, I could slap a flash on the camera and photograph the lab and the staff as it really is, but that’s not why I’ve been asked to come in. Odds are the people working in the lab have already shot lots of snapshots with their digital camera. Guess what, no matter how smart they are or how many megapixels their camera has, the results of these efforts have been deemed inadequate by the designer/editor/writer/etc.

I don’t proclaim to be as smart as the researchers I’m asked to photograph, but I do know a thing or two about photography and what sort of images will please my superiors. It’s my job, with the help of the subjects, to make the lab/equipment/researcher(s) look ‘high-tech’, cutting edge and even a little sexy so the average reader will be intrigued and read the article, students will flock to attend our university and alumni might even donate some money.

1) Colored gels are a photographer’s best weapon against the beige scurge and help add a little snap to an otherwise monochromatic scene. I use them when I believe they will make the photo better and make no apologies for doing so.
2) I always ask the people in the lab to walk me through the steps they go through in their research, looking for task that might make good photographs.
3) I ask the subjects to wear what they should be wearing (goggles, lab coats etc), not what they normally wear. Nothing like having a days-worth of photography rejected because the people in the photos are not dressed appropriately for the work they do.
4) I avoid shots of people working at computers, because everyone works at computers these days. I need photos that tell a story about research, not photos that look like Dell advertisements.
5) I value the input from the subjects, we are working as a team with a common goal. I would never dismiss their input, nor ask them to do something that they are uncomfortable with.

I enjoy research photography and as far as I know, I have not upset any subjects by spicing up their lab with a little non-beige color. I have worked with many researchers and professors over the years and many times the photos I make of them are their favorite images. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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63. gary mercer on July 13, 2006 4:35 PM writes...

Stick with the science, let someone else take the pictures.

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64. Simon Wyndham on July 13, 2006 4:37 PM writes...

Agreed with the above.

I'm a video cameraman and my job is to make nice images that are compelling to watch.

I am also an editor. If I just have a shot of you not doing very much then that means I've got nothing interesting to edit the damn programme with. If I can't show you looking into your test tube thing with the nice rimmed light then what do I show? Do I video your whole experiment in real time and put the viewers to sleep?

In video and TV we are trying to cram, in some cases, the story of a whole years work, or more, into the space of an hour, or half an hour. When you watch a programme do you think that a shot of the scientist looking into the test equipment with the nice lighting wouldn't be preferable to seeing the scientist standing there doing not much at all in a dull white coloured room with flat lighting?

Oh, and a word about those beloved flourescent lights of yours. Not only can they make you appear green to a video or film camera (but hey, if you want us to leave you lit with the natural room light we'll oblige), but with some shutter speeds that can also make the light appear to cycle between light and dark.

But again, if you want amateur looking video with light that goes from dark to light in cycles and with your skin looking green, we'll just leave the light as it is.

We know our job, you know yours. And Our job, when we make a programme about you guys, is to make you look GOOD. Don't you want that?

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65. mike on July 13, 2006 5:00 PM writes...

As a Professional Industrial Photographer I have photographed people in labs, both with and without the color gel look. If it were up to me I would not use color gels, but the graphic designers and PR folks are the ones requesting them. My goal is to keep it as real as possible and use good clean photography to show any subject.
I am hired after the basic design ideas have been determined and I am told the "look" that is needed.
Maybe if the you provided input as to how you would like your industry to be presented to the designers and PR people earlier in the planning stages then you might see a new "look". I am always open to suggestions, but the day of the shoot is to late. These things need to be brought up during the planning stage.
I would love to get away from the color gels.
Lets do it!

My 2 cents!

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66. Photographer on July 13, 2006 6:12 PM writes...

Dear Scientist,
When may I drop in to tell you how to do your job?

The Photographer

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67. Another Photographer on July 13, 2006 6:15 PM writes...

Do something interesting.

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68. Yet another photographer on July 13, 2006 6:18 PM writes...

When our collegues whine we have a saying that goes "go out and make photos."

Perhaps, your saying should be "go cure a disease."

Get back to work, egghead.

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69. PESTCO on July 13, 2006 6:29 PM writes...

Heaven forfend that scientific advances or research should be treated as something that can be tarted up, just like any other commodity in search of a new audience! What was the reason for the photos again? PR, you say? Hmmmm.

It's been a long time since image arts have been held to the standard of being an uninflected "pencil of nature", and keep in mind that photography wouldn't even exist had it not been for the open-mindedness of a few researchers looking for something else entirely.

Consider the possibilities photography encompasses in stimulating the viewer to think about the subject contained within the photograph. Maybe seeing the photograph of the same-old same-old with a few gels tossed in for effect reached a broader audience and the visuals helped a writer break a spell of writer's block, or a musician to phrase some notes differently, just as your annoyances with a little photo trickery have created an unexpected dialogue that has expanded across the internet. Welcome to the 21st C, and while you're visiting our contemporary-minded planet, look up something called chromaskedasic photography. It's another science experiment gone mad!

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70. antimatter maker guy on July 13, 2006 7:00 PM writes...

"Do Something Interesting".

I've heard this when I'm initiating the highest energy, brightest particle collisions in history, with the world's most powerful atomsmasher crammed full of a half million dollars worth of amtimatter.

I've heard it when i've had the largest supply of antiprotons ever assembled on the planet at my fingertips...

Nova, History Channel, BBC, Deutche Telefunken, TV Italia, National Geographic, Science Digest, they all say the same thing: "Do Something Interesting!" roflmao

Often times the drama of science is between the ears, sorry it's not so interesting to look at.

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71. Dan on July 13, 2006 9:10 PM writes...

As a photographer and a theoretical physicist (I couldn't really say which one was the real hobby:), taking "lab photos" is on the "to be avoided" list together with weddings. I think it's even more frustrating to be a scientist and a photographer because one knows the excitement and thrill of doing science but it's damn hard conveying that in photos when all you and your collegues "actually" do all day is sit around in front of a computer, drink coffee and have wonderful conversations over a white/blackboard, we don't even get to wear white lab coats.

I try to concentrate on the human aspects of science, the interactions, and the intensity of thought. I'm lucky to be in a fairly collaborative area of physics and discussions can get quite animated, great for illustrating the drama of theoretical science in progress. Sure beats people staring at a whiteboard and a mess of greek letters.


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72. on July 15, 2006 6:57 PM writes...

Maybe the real problem lies with the equipment designers and lab architects. Perhaps a bit of grant money from each project should be set aside for "sexing up" the lab-- neon ground effects for equipment, purple mood lighting on the walls, a fog machine just for the Hell of it. Heck, you could have Star Trek bridge sounds piped in over the intercom. Oh, and even if your most elaborate equipment is just a gray box with a single knob, have them put in a couple of rows of blinking LEDs for grins. The suits in the front office won't know the difference and you are guaranteed that they be impressed without ever really understanding why you have "OZ" stenciled on the lab door.

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73. erik stenbakken on July 17, 2006 10:24 AM writes...

I definitely owe an aplogy for the ad-hominem remarks. Uncalled for, overgeneralizing, and I repent of it. I've nothing against scientists (I'm married to one [with a doctorate no less]). Spent my first year at college working in the sciende building, later years in humanities and found that generally, the science folks did not take themselves so seriously as did the others. I fell victim and took it too far.

That said, please don't miss my point: it matters how what you do looks. To your peers… true, why bother? They know what you do (or even if they don't, trust me, the THINK they do, some in the field [nobody on this blog] feel they know about, well, a whole lot). True, your peers do not need to be impressed. That's what journals and white papers are for. I've yet to see a cool looking medical or scientific journal because, after all, that's not the point.

However, it may be worth considering that your peers are not the only audience. Not everybody knows all about what you do. Granted, giving them a complete wrong impression isn't wise (thus in my booklet to PR people, I strictly advise *against* colored liquids in flasks and glowing walls). Ironically, the only folks in recent years who have asked for such were lab managers [that's a fact. make of it what you will].

Fact is, nearly every profession or product is portrayed in a way less than literally accurate. TV shows about ANY profession are so far-flung from reality that it's not worth picking on them [yes, even shows about PR people and photographers are as far from reality as shows on medicine and crime forensics]. But what about print? Is all that real? Literal? Ever seen a National Geographic magazine? Most would agree, they have fairly high standards. I know a bit about the mag. and how it comes together. And to think that every photo just "happened that way" or is a literal take on what always existed would be… well, patently WRONG.

This is where it's important to note the difference between photojournalism and illustration. PJ should shoot the lab with the overhead tube lights on (or off, whichever happens to be the case when the shooter walks in). Stained lab coats? Shoot 'em. Goggles on (or off)? Shoot it that way. Boring day, not much happening but automated samples on the mass-spec? Well, boring pictures. That's what was really happening.

Then there is illustrational photography. This is to convey an idea, not show what literally happens. This is very often (always?) a constructed reality. True, it should be constructed with the parts that comprise the reality the person works within (or dare I say, close to it). This would mean it would be wrong to ask the good doctor to "look right into the laser beam, that'll be cool." No. That would be wrong, and for so many reasons. But to ask that we cut the overhead lights, put a cool illustration on a projection screen behind him/her (an illustratiton taken from their work) and shoot it with dramatic light … well, that's called a portrait. An illustration of the person and what they do. It's vastly different than PJ and should not masquerade as such. Sometimes these are simple departures from reality (turn off the lights, use window light and show the final photo in black & white). It's not literal: we most commonly have the lights on, and we are full-color people, even us white ones. So even that is not 100% literal.

Each person should draw their own line. And when doing so, remember the audience. Not everybody knows what you or I do. And just like we comb our hair in the morning (I know, even lab people do this), we all put forward some effort to look decent, if not even try and look good (especially true when trying to impress someone -- remember the audience thing?) If you can't stomach the idea of anything less than 100% literal -- tell them "straight photojournalism only!" and then don't let them correct for the wacky color balance and color temperature of the lights (G/M and B/Y [on the kelvin scale]).

And if someone else opts for a bit more "interpretive" or "illustrational" look, please, give your peers a bit of grace if they do, not crap that they did. That's like the group of nerds who go to the dance and make fun of everyone who dressed up and had a date.

Draw your own line. Have a reason to give to the PR dept. And if they disagree, ask them to explain their reasoning, and then listen. They just might be trying to do you and your department a favor, not trying to make you look stupid. They just might not know the difference. And might I suggest, that not all lab folks are marketing and PR experts? Maybe some mutual education could go a long way and make you look good, and them meet their goals too.

Just a thought.


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74. Bradley Rex on July 17, 2006 7:31 PM writes...

The amazing thing is science is the only profession glossed up by hollywood, photographers, the press corp, etc.

I'm in Law Enforcement, and barely a day goes by that I don't shoot several bad guys, have my partner shot, get assigned to work with a ninja or cat or psychic, (or psychic ninja cat), cover up a government conspiracy, and marry the visiting princes of some country who I saved.

My wife is an attorney, and she only goes to work in ultra short/tight skirts, never looses a case, and represents pimp/drug dealer/ widow billionaires exclusively.

I understand, Baywatch was actually toned down from the real life of lifeguards.

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75. Gary Gladstone on July 21, 2006 9:44 AM writes...

With all due respect to a scientist's methodical and accurate parsing of the facts, this complaint is, unfortunately too common and self-defeating in the research community. It defends science with a narrow view, self important and able to exist by itself. It cannot. It needs "art" to move along.

Photography is largely the key element that drives cash into the science research budgets. It's much more important how readers react emotionally to the images of "science" than it is to report accurately on drab fluorescent rooms manned by lab-coated people doing, to the casual viewer's eye, incomprehensible things.

The "sexy" style of visually reporting on research and development and, science in general, was largely the development of two or three photographers working in the late '70's. We photographed annual reports and corporate capability brochures and produced a style that instantly engaged a viewer. Shareholders and other potential underwriters of the research and development have extremely short attention spans. The details of research and the actions usually required are so boring to a person getting their news and information in daily visual and sonic bites that accuracy would put most audiences to sleep before the overture was completed.

When I encountered scientists, some quite famous, in their labs who wanted to stick to the positive truth (bound volumes of statistics and other black box operations) I would amiably remind them that funding for their work was affected by both the shareholder's perception of how sexy the science was and therefore how much money it might make the company. Magazine readers are all potential shareholders, Security analysts are rarely influenced by such visual drama, but the "magic" message gets through to the audience that holds the cash strings.

So, a scientist's job is paid for with funds partially generated by the work of the really creative storytellers who translate the magic you do in drab settings into cash for more magic.

I agree that my style has been copied and overworked to the extreme. It's a compliment but enough is enough. I encourage all shooters to use whatever means that can to make science super sexy but please move on with some new styles.

Gary Gladstone Author: Corporate & Location Photography

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76. What He Said on July 21, 2006 4:22 PM writes...

As a photographer, I am surprised that someone with the experience and skill level of Gary Gladstone would bother to try explain our profession to you.

It is clear that you know very little about what is expected from high-end photographers WRT this kind off assignment. It is tantamount to our thinking that you show up every day at work and think really hard until you come with a great discovery. If that happens before lunkch, you can knock off early.

Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to find a message board where someone has found a group of photographers of sufficient arrogance as to try to tell scientists how to better do their jobs.

From what I have seen, the reality is that you guys seem to spend the vast majority of your time asking for money.

How hard can that be? We have guys like that on every streetcorner here in Boston.

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77. Hap on July 21, 2006 5:13 PM writes...


When I see evidence that the latest statin has gone blockbuster because of purple-tinged photographs of the pharmaceutical lab from whence it came, I will be suitably humbled and will bow to your (humble) opinions. Since most companies have tended to make money based on the effectiveness of their products and not the photogenicity of their scientists, though, I don't expect to worry about this anytime soon, although I did see a guy holding a "Spare change for Merck" sign on the way to work today, so...

I don't play baseball, but I know a bad baseball team when I see one - it isn't hard to know cliched photographs, particularly when they've been seen many, many times. That PR people may like them (and hence that you have to take them if you wish to work for them) seems reasonable, but that fails to change what they are in the eyes of the people who actually do what you photograph.

When drugs don't work, people criticize the drug companies who make them - why should you be treated differently?

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78. Shameless Plug on May 9, 2007 3:47 PM writes...

I understand where the photogs are coming from, what with wanting to make stuff look exciting even to folks who have no interest in really understanding it. But at the same time, let's be serious: scientists get money because they produce results that are exciting both to other scientists in the form of raw data, and to non-scientists in the form of bold sound bites ("this new protein is the key to unlocking cancer research!"). Or they get money because somebody sees their work and knows that THEY can make money by investing in it. Last time I checked, most NIH grant requests don't require you to submit glam shots with colored gels and poses.

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79. potassiumchloride on December 28, 2010 6:18 AM writes...

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