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"Tye Dyed" Fish Marries Art and Science

By Leonard Ho - Posted Dec 20, 2013 10:00 AM
The Seattle Aquarium is currently hosting an art exhibit named "Cleared" showcasing the piscine photographs of Dr. Adam P. Summers. These aren't just any ol' fish photos; By specially dyeing (deceased) fish, Dr. Summers is able to "flesh out" the intricate details of fish anatomy. His photos are equal parts science and art.
"Tye Dyed" Fish Marries Art and Science

We bet you've never seen a ray in this light ...

Dr. Summer is a professor at the University of Washington.  His work is shared and described at the website (cleverly subtitled "Visualization of data as art"):

The exhibit is 14 large format prints of photographs on aluminum plate, each accompanied by a poem inspired by the image.  The photos were taken by Adam Summers and processed by Ilya Brook.  The Poems were written by Sierra Nelson.

The fishes depicted here have been specially treated to make the stained skeletal tissues visible through the skin and flesh.  The technique uses two vital dyes – Alcian Blue to stain cartilaginous elements a deep blue and Alizarin Red S to turn mineralized tissue crimson.  The specimen is then lightly bleached with hydrogen peroxide to remove dark pigments, leaving a snow-white fish.  Flesh is dissolved with Trypsin, a digestive enzyme found in your intestine. Trypsin attacks most proteins but does not harm collagen, the principle fibrous material that holds the skeleton and skin together.  In order to make the skin and remaining connective tissue invisible the entire specimen is immersed in glycerin.  The index of refraction of collagen is very similar to that of glycerin, so the flesh seems to disappear.  If you return the specimen to water the collagen will turn white again and the skeleton will be hidden.  This technique is only effective on specimens that are less than about 1cm in thickness, and takes much longer for thick specimens than thin.  A small fish might take 3 days to process while a larger animal could take several months.

Images are made while the fish is in glycerin on a light table with flash fill lighting. The total length of most specimens is around 25mm, though the largest is 170mm across, so a macro lens on a Canon digital SLR is used to capture the image.  The photograph is printed in archival inks on an aluminum plate in a limited edition of five.

We share a few of Dr. Summer's beautiful photography.  Visit for more spectacular images.  In case you're wondering ... yes, you can also purchase prints or a calender of these photographs.  If you're fortunate enough to live in the Seattle area, view his large format work in person at the Seattle Aquarium.  The art exhibit will run through the Spring of 2014.

We just love it when science blurs lines with art!






Author: Leonard Ho
Location: Southern California

I'm a passionate aquarist of over 30 years, a coral reef lover, and the blog editor for Advanced Aquarist. While aquarium gadgets interest me, it's really livestock (especially fish), artistry of aquariums, and "method behind the madness" processes that captivate my attention.


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