In her own Words: Photographer Eleanor Farmer on Blood, A Circulation of Curiosities

By Ben Miller | 31 January 2012
An image of a heart with bits of metal around it surrounded by darkness
In her own Words: Photographer Eleanor Farmer, who takes "candid" photographs of blood, on her exhibition at Guy's Hospital in London...

"Blood represents both life and death. It has the power to fascinate and repel.

As children, we marvel at the change of colours in a small bruise, unaware of the scientific significance of what we are studying.

An image of a heart with bits of metal around it surrounded by darkness
Open Heart Surgery, Papworth Hospital, Cambridge
The same inherent curiosity and attention to the visual influences both science and art, and blood is capable of flowing between both these worlds.

My experience of taking photographs in an operating theatre first prompted me to consider blood as the subject of a photographic project.

'In theatre', even during the most routine of procedures, blood stains everything with the shock of mortality.

Metal-to-metal, it confronts forceps and retractors and makes irresponsible advances across sterile sheets.

I remember seeing a spurt of blood reach up towards the surgeon's mask and leave behind the tell-tale mark of an inappropriate kiss.

Blood 'lives' under pressure and is only useful when it is on the move.

When it escapes the boundary of our skin, it becomes a visual metaphor; though we seek to control and understand, we cannot exclude uncertainty.
A photo of a wooden square with circles of red, green and black dotted across it
Monoclonal Antibodies
My first contact with the fear that blood is capable of producing has a much more abstract connection to the visual.

I was 10 when my father, at the age of 40, contracted Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.

His skin was a pale manifestation of the invisible war that raged beneath and, during the two years of his treatment, words such as platelets, T-cells and Blast Cells became part of my world.

Ultimately, his red blood cells were overpowered by something I was unable to visualize.

It is surprising to think that less then 100 years ago, the treatment for my father's disease and indeed many other diseases might have involved leeches.

An image of a drawing of a butterfly made from dark blood
Mosquito Head, Magnification x400
Even though bloodletting may not have been considered the right treatment, it could well have been carried out, as any treatment was considered better than none.

Along with the technical advances of modern medicine, the leech continues to be wheeled out on hospital trolleys, though now for a much more selective form of bloodletting.

Alongside medical practitioners, it has been humbling to meet others who seek to rationalise and quantify blood in different worlds.

I have met forensic scientists and photographers who have witnessed bloody scenes of unimaginable violence and acts of fate. Like archaeologists, they work to piece together evidence in an effort to gain understanding and justice.

Photography often plays a contradictory role in our association between seeing and knowing.

Together with the microscope, the photograph has brought invisible forces under scientific control, but at the same time has helped to unleash the wonders and terrors of an unfathomable universe.

An image of an exotic snake against a black background
Sumatran Short-tailed Python, Python Curtus Curtus
Through the microscope it is possible to see that which could not otherwise be seen.
We can admire the beauty of the mosquito, which is capable of transmitting the most deadly of diseases, and discover that our own blood can look like cherry blossom.

Indeed, it wasn't until physicians could say what blood looked like that they were able to describe its function.

In the middle of the 17th century, William Harvey was able to insist that 'blood lives of itself'. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that pathologists successfully identified the pigment haemoglobin.

Throughout my research, I have followed little ‘capillaries’, which have led me to some surprising findings about blood and have also enabled me to come into contact with people who are life-enhancing in the same way that blood is.

I have had the privilege of watching open heart surgery performed by Francis Wells and his surgical team, and have met the owners of a reptile company, who take their exotic creatures such as the Bearded Dragon and Sumatran Python into their local hospice.

It was also fascinating to meet the entomologist and his incredible collection of moths, with names such as the Death's-head Hawkmoth or the Maiden's Blush; species he could find in his small suburban back garden.

It is both exciting and challenging to attempt to provide a link between what Michel Foucault describes as 'the spontaneous link between what one can see and what one can say' [from The Order of Things].

By virtue of its subject, this work cannot provide a comprehensive account, but offers an opportunity to explore some of its rich veins."

  • Blood, A Circulation of Curiosities is at Atrium 2 of Guy’s Hospital until March 9 2012.
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