An Interview with Photographer Don Dudenbostel

by STEM Scouts

Don Dudenbostel is a photographer from Oak Ridge, Tenn. His x-ray photographs can be found on our STEM Scouts posters and throughout our website. Don sat down with us to talk about how he became interested in x-ray photography and walk us through the process of creating these stunning images.

His Photography

His father and grandfather were both accomplished amateur photographers. He became fascinated with the process at age 5 and used his mother’s Ansco box camera to take his first pictures.  He received his first camera, a Brownie, for his seventh birthday. He took so many pictures that his father taught him to develop his own black and white images.

How did you get interested in x-rays?

I was always the kid who took the family alarm clock or radio apart and couldn’t always get it back together. I was always into science. I lived in Oak Ridge, TN, in the 1950s; that was an environment that was rich in science.

His first foray into x-rays was not about art, but about his love of science and a high school science fair project.

In high school, my biology experiment was to study effects of radiation energy on onion slips, because they were more sensitive to the effects of radiation. I did a lot of research using old Scientific American magazines and books.

I had built an x-ray machine out of an old radio tube, but it didn’t have enough power.

I went through the phone book and found a fellow who had worked for General Electric X-Ray. His name was Harold Hopper. My dad took me to his house on a Saturday. He opened his garage door, and there was this amazing mass of old x-ray equipment. He started loading up my dad’s car with it.

Then he instructed me how not to kill myself. With 80,000 volts, there was always the risk of electrocution or burning myself up. He also gave me a lot of old magazines for radiologists. One had an x-ray of a flower on the cover, an image from the 1930s.

The science fair deadline came and went because it took longer for the plants to grow. But I got the A.

Through the experience, I saw the opportunity to blend science with art and creativity. I pursued both and did quite a number of x-ray images in 1964-65.

College Experience

In college, he put away the x-ray machine but worked his way through the University of Tennessee as chief photographer at the Daily Beacon. In 1969, he took a photograph of a student hiding in bushes behind a group of riot police. That photo brought him national attention and became one of Esquire magazine’s photos of the year in 1970.

I majored in microbiology and org chemistry, not doing any x-ray work. I started a commercial photography business, did that for 47 years. About 12 years ago, my wife, a painter, suggested going back to x-rays and getting the work into a gallery. I put together an old piece of equipment for it; now, the x-ray photos are in nine galleries, and I do commissions for corporations all over the world.

Who else does this type of photography?

There are very few. Nick Veasey in Britain does a very different type of x-rays, using musical instruments, human skeletons, industrial images and very large items: a jetliner, a city bus and cars. He and Don Dudenbostel have collaborated on projects. Steven N. Meyers in Seattle does mostly plants but in a different type of presentation.

Describe the x-ray machines you use today.

I’ve used a lot of different ones. I built all of them until a few years ago. I’ve used a dental or veterinary medicine machine for more dense objects, like a telephone, or things with metal.

Plants require very low levels of energy, and you can’t approach them with a medical device. At levels that low, even the air will stop the x-rays. X-ray energy is measured in thousands of volts. The higher the voltage, the more energy, and the more penetration of the object.

The envelope or tube [that the x-rays travel through] is glass. Some settings I use are so low the energy doesn’t penetrate the glass, so I use a special tube with a window.

What I’m doing with x-rays is uncharted. It takes 4000 volts to x-ray a flower, versus 40,000 to x-ray a hand. Even a piece of paper will stop it. I’ve even placed a piece of paper over an object, and the ink absorbs the x-ray.

How do you stay safe from radiation?

I have a lead wall and an apron. Distance is also your friend. Some of my exposures are as long as 60 minutes, so I leave the room.

I work with a commercial machine that weighs about 500 pounds and is about the size of a big microwave. It’s self-contained and very safe. I periodically check seals on unit to be sure there’s no leakage.

How do you develop the images?

I use regular photographic film. Digital x-ray film is not high enough resolution for these low levels. The image is too grainy. I put the film in a plastic bag in the machine, on top of the object. It’s all experimental. There are no standards.

Objects have different characteristics and amounts of water. Water absorbs the x-rays. For example, a succulent plant has a lot of water. My current project is creating murals with ferns and ginkgo leaves. Certain ferns have a high water content and leathery leaves that absorb x-rays. They’re a nightmare to work with.

Are you ever completely surprised by the resulting image?

You never know what you’re going to see. Nature never produces the same thing twice. There are a lot of imperfections. I once shot some tropical and carnivorous flowers and found bugs still being digested inside them.

Are there things you wish you could x-ray?

There are always things. I’d like to do some very large objects. I’d love to use an MRI or CT machine with radio waves. But it’s expensive and would require someone, a corporation, sponsoring it.

How has your work evolved?

The subject matter remains similar, but the things I’m doing change. I’m using other mediums to convey the image. Platinum imprints are very beautiful—prints on watercolor paper—very rich and warm looking. I’m getting ready to do some colloidal, emulsion images. It’s a kind of wet plate process, like a tintype, with a chemical mix poured onto a wet plate. It produces beautiful images.

What reactions do you get from people who see your work for the first time?

It’s pretty amazing. I was surprised when I first approached a gallery. They immediately wanted to do a show. Everybody who’s seen it has loved it.

It’s a unique look at something we see every day. People connect x-rays with a doctor or dentist. This is a new approach that shows the inner form, a new beauty.

You can see more of Don’s work at x-rayarts.com.

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