Controlling Chaos: Kevin Osborn
April 1, 2010
Sitting across the table in a muted Hawaiian shirt, close-trimmed beard and wire-rimmed glasses, Kevin Osborn looks like a quirky high school science teacher. The vibrant crystalline structures in his most recent series of photographs, “Crystal Melts,” where Osborn used meticulous scientific methods to create stunning imagery, more than reinforces this impression, as does the way his eyes light up as he starts to discuss his love of the natural world, photography and education. With his unique and dedicated vision, Osborn has learned to harness the physical world and explore the unpredictable with precision.
Osborn has always loved the natural world. He received his first degree in natural resources, planning and interpretation from Humboldt University in 1983. Afterward, he sought out jobs working in his field, but he was ahead of his time and the jobs were few and far between. This didn’t stop his love of nature. Even though he was unable to pursue natural science, he stayed closely tied to his natural environment, which was easy to do with his new found passion for photography.
After several years of working outside of his field, Osborn decided to return to science and received his second bachelor’s degree, this time a Bachelor of Arts in computer science from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1990. With that degree he was able to obtain a job in the computer industry and worked for 15 years submerged in science and computers.
But nature and photography had a pull on him that he could not ignore. In 2005, Osborn left the corporate world and entered into the Master of Science in photography program at Brooks Institute, and later the Master of Fine Arts in photography program in 2008. He shifted all of his attentions back to the natural environment—with a creative, scientific mind.
Osborn’s photography reflects a balance between his analytical approach to the world and the creativity he honed while working on his MFA. “The work I am doing now is heavily influenced by the science,” Osborn remarks over tea. “The fine art side allows me to pursue it in different ways. Sometimes it’s about control, because coming from a science background I want to control everything. The MFA side says that if you release some of that control then more of the intuitive side is going to come out.”
The control comes in the creation of the crystals that Osborn uses as his microscopic subject matter and the intricate system of filters, polarization and lighting that allows the colors and diversity of the crystals to come alive. But Osborn realizes that there is a limit to what influence he can have over his miniscule subjects. “You can’t control the way the crystal grows,” he says with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders. “You can control what part of the crystal you include in the frame, but you can’t control the crystal.”
However, with the vast variety of imagery that Osborn has created with this scientific technique, it is clear that he is doing something right. The crystals themselves are the key. The materials that he uses, ranging from urea to Merlot, naturally create birefringent crystals that act as prisms. The crystals are illuminated from behind through a polarization filter, which aligns the light and allows the natural prism of the crystal to scatter the light into a rainbow. That light then travels through a cross-polarization set to 45 degrees, which reduces the amount of light in the scene that isn’t influenced by the crystals. The final filter is a short wave inhibitor, more commonly referred to as a red-enhancement filter, which depresses the blue light in the scene and results in the predominantly warm-toned subjects that end up in Osborn’s work. Once the light is established and the camera attached to the microscope, he can begin his search for the perfect section of the slide to photograph.
Osborn specifically searches through the viewfinder for familiar shapes—ones reminiscent of recognizable objects in the everyday world. “When I am looking at the slides, a lot of times I will see something that I’m drawn to. There is some pattern or texture or design in the crystal that I think is neat. Then I have to ask myself, ‘Why is that so neat? How do I isolate it? How do I capture that, and how do I communicate it to somebody else?’ ” Walking amidst large prints of his work, he points to one image and explains that, to him, it is an elephant, another is sailboats on water and another is a Martian landscape. “That one,” he says with a laugh, “we call ‘Mr. Bill.’ ” But it is important to him that the viewers interpret the work for themselves, so he consistently names his images with scientific precision—“Raspberry Wine #9,” “Urea #4,” “Resorcinol #3” or “Ascorbic Acid #1.” Although he leaves the images open to the interpretation of the viewer’s imagination, Osborn’s goal is to liaise between the natural world and the general public.
“The scientific world holds a lot of secrets—artistic secrets in my mind. There are all kinds of things that the scientists know that the rest of the world doesn’t. So I am looking at art as a way to bring that out. I am still acting as the interpreter. My first degree was about interpreting science to people and I am still doing that.” To that end, Osborn has been exhibiting his photographs in small venues around the country. Printing enhances the industrial nature of his work. Each image, initially only as large as 1/40 of a microscope slide, is enlarged and printed on polished aluminum, causing a sort of inner glow effect when the images are seen in person. The rigid, repeating structures of the crystals are given new life with sharp detail and brilliantly rendered colors.
Osborn’s microscopic work encourages a new perspective on the world’s makeup, but his scientific explorations don’t stop with a 40X attachment to his microscope and camera. He has expanded into high-speed photography of splashes, popping balloons, and, because it seemed “fitting,” crossbow darts through apples. Unlike the microscopic work, which must be done in a properly equipped lab, most of his high-speed photography is done in his home garage. For Osborn, the scientific exploration and the photographic exploration feed off of each other to create new challenges for new images, images that can alter the perception of the world we live in.
His analytical, hyper-controlling tendencies, along with the quickly available images that digital technology provides, allow him to fine-tune his technique to a point that limits the randomness of the events that he is photographing. Similar to his crystalline work, the high-speed photography involves meticulous control over the setup, surroundings, lighting, timing and subject. With the aid of a device called a Mumford Time Machine, Osborn can set his camera to fire at the sound of a pellet gun, or to be triggered with light or movement. But it isn’t as simple as focusing and shooting. Osborn’s scientific level of control ensures that all four flashes fire simultaneously to properly illuminate a single instant of the event. And once the flashes are in sync, their timing must be established to get the desired perspective of the event—a fraction of a second is the difference between a pellet entering a balloon and the latex wavering in the air after it has popped. Every aspect of Osborn’s photography requires this kind of painstaking attention to detail.
The control, perseverance and dedication that Osborn employs in the creation of his subject matter is overshadowed only by the creativity he employs in creating the imagery that follows. “What I try to do is create some sort of a pattern that I haven’t seen before and then fine-tune it to optimize it. So first it’s pure exploration—let’s try this, what would happen if I did that. I spend a lot of time dreaming late at night and then I go into the studio and try it,” Osborn says. “Sometimes there is nothing to really explore there. And other times there is.”
From those times that he has found something to explore, Osborn has created a portfolio of imagery that is vibrant, fanciful and liberated within its scientific constraints. His artistic eye has managed to transform the way we view the world around us as well as the standard scientific applications we learned in high school biology. Microscopic crystalline structures have become whimsical landscapes. An exploding balloon has become a powdery, shuddering globe. A splash of water is a dancer in flight. With each new image, the imagination is released to make new interpretations.
But what brings everything home for Osborn is the ultimate question of what it is we are really looking at. “It’s about discovery and it’s about interpretation and it’s about education in a way. It’s why I am motivated to do this. It gives me a chance to talk about it.” When some people see the work, they believe they are looking at paintings or digital creations. Osborn relishes the opportunity to explain that they are, in fact, photographs and to discuss the scientific roots of the images. “The conversation just follows naturally. The picture triggers the curiosity which then opens up the mind to learn.”
Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler is a freelance writer and photographer living and working in Carlsbad, CA. She received her MFA in still photography from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, CA, and has contributed to Rangefinder, Digital Photo Pro and the PIEA Journal as well as received awards for her photography. www.amandaquintenz.com