Portraits of scientists, on display

This time, it's scientists who are under the lens - one attached to a camera, that is

Melinda Wenner
Jul 19, 2007
Photographer Max Gerber had only about half an hour to shoot each scientist, so he had to make quick decisions. When he met David Spector, cell biologist and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's director of research, Gerber knew he had to photograph him with his beloved microscope. "Scientists love their toys," he says.
But because of the shape of the room, Spector couldn't be shot using the equipment, as it would only reveal the back of his head. So Gerber asked Spector to sit on the floor instead -- and that took some convincing. But seeing the photograph now, Spector admits that Gerber "got it right."The fruits of Gerber's labor are on display through the end of the month at CSHL's Bush Auditorium, where the walls are adorned with 19 faces of the scientists, students and staff that keep the lab going.
The experience of being photographed reminded Spector of his own work. "My life, from a research point of view, is focused on microscopy, so much of the data is either still images or movies," he says while sitting in his office, the walls of which are decorated with colorful images of cells. "He is a photographer [and] I'm his subject, whereas the cell is my subject." Last summer, Gerber spent five days as photographer-in-residence at the swan-inhabited campus, 35 miles outside of Manhattan. With so much equipment to lug around and a large campus to navigate, time was tight -- Gerber had to skip a few meals in order to get things right.
Based in Los Angeles, the self-taught photographer is young and thin, bearing a slight resemblance to the actor Adrian Brody. The combination of his quiet modesty and dry wit makes one warm to him almost instantly, a trait that may help him convince his subjects to follow his suggestions (like asking them to sit on the floor).One can't miss Nobel Laureate James Watson, featured in two serious-looking shots taken outside his home right down the street. Gerber explains that those were the only two pictures in which Watson, the Laboratory's chancellor and former director, was not making funny faces.
Leemor Joshua-Tor, another subject, says she usually feels awkward having her picture taken -- most people do, Gerber contends -- but "Max really put me at ease." This could be because Gerber tried to keep his subjects comfortable by talking with them during their shoots about what they love most: science. Joshua-Tor, who studies the protein complexes involved in cell regulation and is soon to become dean of CSHL's Watson School of Biological Sciences, was a member of the committee that asked Gerber to capture the people behind CSHL. The committee felt he was less likely than other photographers to "make us look very nerdy," she explains. Part of the point of the exhibit, she says, was to help people realize that scientists are people too, "in all our colors and shapes and forms." Joshua-Tor's long, curly brown hair was the focus of Gerber's photograph.The project was also designed to provide artwork that will adorn the walls of the six new buildings under construction on the laboratory's upper campus. While CSHL suggested a few of the people for him to shoot, Gerber chose some himself, too, after surfing around the Lab's Web site for interesting subjects prior to his visit. And once he arrived on-site, he found a few more he simply had to make time to photograph.These included members of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory staff -- a custodian, a mailroom attendant, and a building mechanic. Gerber explains that they proved indispensable to his residency, helping him move equipment from lab to lab. They were also, he discovered, very dedicated to CSHL. "Everybody who works here seems so involved with the place," he explains, and he couldn't imagine not including them.Melinda Wenner mail@the-scientist.comThe exhibit is on display until July 29th at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Bush Auditorium from 9am to 5pm daily. Admission is free.Images: (by Max Gerber) David Spector, Tony Zador, James Watson, Leemor Joshua-Tor.Editor's note (July 20): This story has been updated from a previous version.Links within this article:Max Gerber http://www.msgphoto.comDavid Spector http://www.cshl.edu/public/SCIENCE/spector.htmlK. Hopkin, "Bring me your genomes," The Scientist, June 6, 2005 http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15531KV Prasanth et al, "Regulating gene expression through RNA nuclear retention," Cell, October 21, 2005. http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/16239143James Watson http://gradschool.cshl.edu/jdw_.htmlLeemor Joshua-Tor http://www.cshl.edu/public/SCIENCE/joshua.htmlJ. Yajnik, "What Argonaute does," The Scientist, September 6, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/24472