Biologist Amy Lamb fell in love with seeing nature close-up, then traded her microscope for a camera lens
By Bob Grant | June 1, 2007
It's a glorious May morning at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington D.C. Spring is in full bloom: Bees buzz, birds twitter, and flowers wearing colorful crowns sway gently in the cool breeze.
But the most striking botanical specimens hang inside a gallery near the Garden's entrance. The 21 up-close photographs of flowers and other plant parts comprise Patterns in Nature, the latest exhibition from photographer and erstwhile scientist Amy Lamb.
Lamb grows almost all of the plants she photographs in a garden outside her Bethesda, Maryland home, which also houses her studio. She takes cuttings from her plants at various stages of their lifecycles, carefully lights her subjects, and photographs them against jet-black backgrounds, highlighting their tiniest hairs and thinnest veins. What results are intricately detailed photos that capture the innate grace of flowers.
As a PhD who studied protein synthesis at the University of Michigan, Lamb (née Falvey) brings a scientific sensibility to her photos that other artists lack. "Humans often take for granted the amazing engineering that goes into plants," Lamb says. "I'm looking for the overall structures and for the details that make plants unique."
In Patterns, Lamb juxtaposes the spirals, star-shapes, and curves of several plant species with similar structural motifs found elsewhere in nature.
Her photo of a spiraled Cyclamen tendril cradling an unemerged flower bud, for example, hangs beside images of other natural spirals -- spiral galaxy NGC 4622, 1992's Hurricane Andrew whirling off the coast of Florida, and a seahorse, with its slender, curved tail.
"These are purely visual comparisons as opposed to scientific comparisons," she says. "But as a scientist, I looked at the flowers not only for their beauty, but also from [the perspective of] why and how they got to be these forms and colors. My eye is not just about design, it's about science."
Strolling past vivid photos of a star-shaped Stapelia next to a drawing of a sea star, and an emerging peony shoot mirrored by a drawing of a cerebral pyramidal cell, Lamb says that her appreciation for biological beauty took root in an electron microscopy lab where she worked for a summer after graduating from university. "I fell in love with sub-cellular structures," she says. "You'd be in this dark room with a huge machine, and all of a sudden there would appear this whole world that you couldn't even see before."
This aesthetic seed lay somewhat dormant, however, as Lamb continued her scientific career. She completed her PhD in 1970, then pursued postdocs in Switzerland and at the National Institutes of Health, where she studied the transcription of globin mRNA.
Lamb earned a reputation for thoroughness. "My experiments were always repeatable, and I took my time," Lamb says. "I didn't stop doing something until I got it perfect."
"She did her biochemistry how she now does her photography," says Marjorie Robert-Guroff, Lamb's NIH collaborator and now a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute. "It was meticulous [with] very much attention to detail."
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