Start with a science lab. Add one chemistry professor with self-described “wacky interests.” Introduce a visual and verbal art major once obsessed with rocks, especially the minerals that glow under ultraviolet light. Mix up a variety of chemistry experiments under special lights and have the student capture them on camera. What do you get?
The Art of Chemistry, a year-long discovery in pictures of the beauty and form caused –and sometimes concocted – with a variety of chemical compounds. The art exhibit runs through Sept. 28 in Lightner Gallery inside Lightner Library at Keuka College, where an artist reception will be held from 4:30 – 6 p.m. Thursday, September 20. The gallery is open daily; hours can be found on the main page at: http://lightner.keuka.edu
Student photographer Kat Andonucci, a junior from Chestertown, near the Lake George region, did a year-long independent study under the guidance of Andy Robak, associate professor of chemistry. With Robak casting the vision and directing her in each experiment, Andonucci crafted the composition, often using a tripod, a remote shutter and a long exposure to create the images. For example, one image of Robak pouring a luminol solution into a narrow-mouth beaker required the shutter remain open for 15 seconds or more to showcase the intense blues and greens of the liquid.
“Everything we did had to be something visually appealing,” explained Andonucci, describing how the independent study served as her chemistry class for the year.
“I’ve owned my camera since ninth grade, and as a side hobby, I did landscapes and outdoor pictures,” Andonucci said, explaining how she entered college as a biology major, thinking she would pursue a career in forensic pathology. But a film photography course in her first semester got her thinking her high school hobby might turn out to be more than just something to do on the side. So she switched her major to visual and verbal art.
Enter Robak, who contacted Melissa Newcomb, assistant professor of art, last year in search of a student who could help illustrate experiments that would show “the fun side of chemistry.”
“I’ve always been interested in chemistry as art or science as art. You can see from the pictures that a lot of stuff I work with is really cool,” said Robak, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He rattled off a variety of compounds, from mercury, with its shiny metallic texture that is “really fun to play with,” to flourescein, which turns neon-green when in contact with water, to glycerol, which refracts light in a way that seems to make objects submersed in it disappear. Images of each of those chemicals appear in the exhibit.
“We wanted to treat as a course, the chemistry of things that are neat to look at, to have a clue what they were,” Robak said, pointing out how many science textbooks use photography to illustrate experiments. The two received a $500 grant from Keuka’s Division of Academic Affairs to help cover costs of printing and framing the images.
For her part, Andonucci said she was “excited and nervous” because shooting under such unusual conditions was outside of her comfort zone with natural, outdoor lighting. Indeed, lighting was the biggest challenge as she would sometimes use a window, a lamp, black lights, or would incorporate the light generated from a chemical itself in different images.
A secondary challenge was the blink-and-miss-it nature of some of the experiments, such as a shot of flames from methane gas bubbles leaping upward from the hand of Erik Holmes, a senior visual and verbal art major.
Andonucci had to be sure to take several shots of each experiment, capturing several on camera by conducting experiments several times in a row. For another image, Robak directed her to bring glycerol, a liquid, into contact with purple potassium permanganate, a solid, which bursts into purple flames and smoke without any introduction of heat, he said.
“Kat worked on that one for a long time. She tried about 20 times and probably took 150 photographs of the same thing in order to get it right,” Robak said. It’s a good thing she shot in digital, because she kept filling up the camera’s memory card every time, he added.
“More than anything, I think she had a really good eye for these sorts of things. She takes a great picture, but out of many, many pictures that she got, she was great at picking out the right ones,” Robak said.
After a year of translating her chemistry class into images, Andonucci said she would be willing to work with Robak again on similar projects. She is considering posting her images online to see if she could market them to companies for commercial use.
“There’s so much you can do with forensic photography,” she said, adding that she’s “pretty open to anything [with photography], as long as it’s not taking pictures of people.”
Robak managed to convince Holmes to paint a graffiti mural on a concrete wall last year. The mural illustrated the chemical structure of concrete itself, and Robak said he has ideas for other special projects involving science and other types of art, whether sculpture, painting or more.
“I’ve got too many ideas and not enough artists,” Robak said. “I’m totally looking for more people to rope into these kinds of things.”
Summing up her year-long experiment and the exhibit, Andonucci said “it’s awesome, it’s pretty and it’s cool. I had fun and learned a ton.”