The fossils scattered about Norman J. Barker's basement range up to billions of years old, which seems remarkable when you see them in photographic close-ups: the colors so dazzlingly fresh, and the patterns vaguely reminiscent of early 20th century abstractions. They don't look a day over 85.
Using a large-format Hasselblad camera and magnifications up to 40 times, Barker and his photography partner Dr. Giraud V. Foster find images just beyond the rim of plain vision. At the very least, they're really pretty pictures. At most, the stuff invites meditation on grand themes: abstraction and nature, universality of form, life and death, decay and permanence. It's amazing what you can do if you keep the focus very, very narrow.
"We look at it as a story of life and death," says Foster, a medical doctor and biochemist. "We look at it as a story of extinct species. All species disappear, with the exception of bacteria."
Barker and Foster, whose work is on display at School 33 in South Baltimore through Dec. 8, have photographed fossilized bacteria dated as pre-Cambrian, meaning it might be as old as 3.6 billion years. They've made pictures of dinosaur bone, bits of extinct shrubs, shellfish called ammonites, petrified wood, primitive insects - all startling in either their intense colors, striking patterns or both. Even fossilized animal excrement, called coprolite, presents a vivid array of bright orange, blue, green, maroon and yellow.
To look at photographs of these primitive life forms is to see visual echoes of modern masters. At five-times magnification, a section of a Jurassic tree fern from Australia might be a detail of a painting by 19th and early 20th century Austrian Gustave Klimt. In its array of mauve, yellow, oranges and reds, a bit of wood from the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona at four-times magnification seems to have been painted by American artist Helen Frankenthaler, best known for her color field paintings of the 1950s and '60s. At magnification 10, a Cretaceous period ammonite shell found in Alberta, Canada, might bring to mind the brooding, underwater palette of American abstract expressionist William Baziotes.
It's a reminder that what you see, or how you interpret what you see, is a function of how you've been conditioned to see. Nature abounds with patterns that look "abstract" to the eye of a person whose definition of pictorial "abstraction" developed in the 20th century.
Barker and Foster seem less interested in abstraction as an aesthetic pursuit than they are in the beauty of natural form. The work finds splendor secreted in unlikely places. It also reminds the viewer that nature makes things in patterns, and those patterns can be found across an astonishing range of scale. The spiral of the tiny ammonite shell echoes the shape of a swirling galaxy or a tropical storm. With its central "spine" and rows of slender appendages arrayed on either side, a Cambrian trilobite - a primitive ancestor of insects and crustaceans - apes the form of a fern or even a human skeleton. A type of sea creature called a brittle star suggests a flower with its five arms radiating from a center. In a general sense, common forms follow the common course of growth.
"Everything you're looking at is about growth," says Foster. "It's geological growth, it's biological growth."
To show these primitive objects in their most appealing light, Barker and Foster had to resolve several technical problems. Magnification severely limits depth of field, meaning slight variations in the texture of the specimen being photographed can throw the image out of focus.
Some of the fossils were cut and polished before being photographed. To photograph them, Barker and Foster built a specimen platform that could be set parallel to the film plane. For fossils with rough surfaces, they used a technique that's been around for about 25 years called scanning light photomacrography, in which the lens is focused not on the object but on a stationary plane of light narrower than the camera's depth of field. On a camera stand with a hydraulically controlled platform, the fossil is raised through the plane of light. The camera shutter stays open between two and five minutes as each plane of the specimen passes through light at the focal plane.
Two other problems related to magnification, loss of color saturation and accumulation of dust, were resolved by photographing the specimens under a layer of oil or water.
If the technical stuff is most likely to interest other photographers, and if the subject matter is more in the realm of science, what is the work doing in an art gallery?
"I think they're just exquisite pieces," says Walter Gomez, who owns the Gomez Gallery in Baltimore. "The colors, the compositions, they're just exquisite."