Shooting bacteria for fun and profit
How did you get started?
I’ve been looking into micro-scopes since I was 9 or 10. At Marshalltown Community College in Iowa, I studied algae, protozoans, and aquatic insects, but I would always have to sketch by hand what I saw through the microscope. I remembered my dad shooting flowers in our yard, and thought it would be nice to take photos through the microscope instead. That was 1969. I started licensing photos of bacteria in the early ’80s. My work gained attention when I won awards from Nikon, and in 2000 I started full-time stock photography.
And your science background?
My Ph.D. was in botany, specifically in algae and other photosynthetic bacteria. I have minors in microbiology and protozoology. I also spent 17 years doing research in neurobiology.
Who are your clients?
I work with researchers, textbook publishers, museums, magazines such as National Geographic, Discover, Time, and Fortune. Clorox, Coca-Cola Co., and Johnson & Johnson have used my photos. There’s also government labs like Los Alamos, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And I’ve shot for television and movie productions, and news media like CNN and the BBC.
What is your workflow like?
Companies or researchers contact me with specific procedures and protocols to preserve the samples they want photographed. Then clients send me cell samples from everywhere from toxic areas or deserts to cow bacteria. (FedEx or UPS is alerted that shipped samples are dead and preserved bacteria.) I dehydrate the sample and place the bacteria in a device that coats the surfaces with atoms of gold and palladium. Next, the electron microscope scans the sample one line at a time. Each image takes one and a half minutes. The photo-graph is saved to computer, and I postprocess in Adobe Photoshop.
Do you have your own visual style?
I’ve become known for my colorizations of these images. Textbooks like black-and-white because they want the original content, but I use exotic colors, particularly for commercial clients who want the colors to jump out.
What is your most important skill?
Bacterium cell structures can often be difficult to preserve, particularly in the vacuum required for electron microscopy. So my experience over the years usually allows me to preserve and image most all types of life.
How has your gear changed?
When I first started, we developed a connector for the camera to attach to light microscopes, which zoom 200 times. Now, since I specialize in photography with zooms up to 500,000 times, I rent time on electron microscopes from the University of Hawaii for $100 an hour. I used to develop b&w film for the electron microscopes, but today these instruments have digital acquisition systems. I also do some light microscopy in my lab at home, and I have a research-grade compound microscope and two stereo dissecting microscopes that connect via photo tube to a Canon PowerShot S3 IS.
What are your favorite subjects?
Extremophiles. My first real experience working with bacteria from extreme environments was working on bacteria that occurred in the lakes around Mount Saint Helens after it erupted in May 1980. Since then, I have worked on bacteria that live in arctic, volcanic, desert, aquatic, stratospheric, and toxic environments.
Dennis Kunkel is a Hawaii-based stock photomicrographer whose work has appeared in films (Star Trek, Outbreak), television (CSI, Bones, Jeopardy!), and magazines. See his work at PopPhoto.com/kunkel and denniskunkel.com.