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Beautiful X-Ray Photos Reveal Nature in New Light

Michele Berger and Nicole Bonaccorso
Published: December 30, 2013

Physicist Arie van't Riet shot and colorized X-ray images of flowers, animals and insects, calling his works bioramas. He likes to recreate scenes that may be found in nature. (Arie van't Riet)

Arie van’t Riet wants to show you the natural world from a new perspective: Through an X-ray. For five years, the physicist-turned-artist has honed his X-ray craft not with human bones, but by taking images of plants and animals, then retouching them with a splash of color.

It’s looking at nature in a new light. “Don’t judge the animal by its color. Color is lost in X-rays,” van’t Riet told weather.com. “Sometimes a beautiful bird with all kinds of colors in X-rays doesn’t look nice anymore.”

But then, however, it refocuses and the animal’s similarities to the human skeleton makes it beautiful, he said. “If I see my elbow, my knee, my eyes, my trachea, all the animals they have the same. We know it, of course, but it is surprising. You clearly see it in the images,” he added. “They are all the same inside.”

These unique photos came about organically. Someone asked van’t Riet to X-ray a painting. From there, he moved to thinner objects like flowers, then eventually added animals. He uses only dead animals — taxidermy, road kill (“traffic victims,” in van’t Riet’s words), those his cat literally dragged in — rather than live animals; he doesn’t think it’s justified to put animals through the risk of an X-ray simply for the sake of art. 

That said, he’s dreaming big, hoping to make bioramas — what he calls his natural scenes — that include alligators, flamingos, larger animals in their surroundings. He has done a monkey and a cat, but both were mummies. The only live animals he’s done so far were snails. That’s because they get exposed to very little radiation in the process and move so slowly.

Animals for this type of art would need to sit still, and van’t Riet says making that happen would be nigh on impossible. Just think about it: Imagine getting a monkey to stay put even just for a moment? To make these photos, van’t Riet sets the scene, determines whether he needs high- or low-energy X-rays and then takes his shot. It’s fast — but not fast enough for a wild beast.

After the fact, van’t Riet adds the color. It’s to help us see what he sees: “With our eyes, we only see the surface of an object, the outmost surface. And our eyes can see colors,” he said. “In X-rays, the surface is gone. The X-rays look inside. By coloring, I try to bring back some of the surface.” In doing so, van’t Riet shows us yet another way to see the world.

For more of van’t Riet’s work, visit his website

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