A luminescent disc is at the back of Peter Gruner Shellenbergerʼs prints, a large coin that recalls the sun. But the glow is oddly-colored and disconcerting. It levels and obliterates the features of the foreground object, defining it only in the starkest outer lines, making it familiar and strange at the same time.

Shellenbergerʼs primary “paint” is radiation. Browsing some garage sales, he came across some solid-color dishware first sold in the 1930s under the name Fiesta Ware, stained by a dye agent containing uranium, which emits a low radioactive signature. This element at place 92 in the Periodic Table also happens to bond with oxygen in friendly and diverse ways, creating a natural rainbow effect which has nothing to do with its radiation. But it still throws off a low level of alpha rays – which are broken-off chunks of protons and neutrons – and Shellenbergerʼs method was to take plastic figurines from Cracker Jack boxes and expose them against a photographic plate held to the Fiesta Ware for 45 days. This confirms the (basically harmless) radioactive content of the early versions of this kitchen staple and raises questions about the effect of the natural world on man, as repurposed in technological simulacrum.

This ingenious work is, in some sense, a replication of the scientific accident that led to the discovery of radiation. In 1898, a chemist in Paris named Henri Becquerel was investigating phosphorescence, the effect of an object absorbing light and then slowly releasing it (best known today as the trick behind glow-in-the-dark trinkets). Becquerel had wrapped a bundle of a particular salt – potassium uranyl sulfate – in some photographic plates and set them on the window ledge of his apartment. The day had been cloudy, and Becquerel opened the package expecting to see nothing, as no sunlight could possibly have been absorbed. Instead he found the plates fogged up in strange patterns. Whatever it was coming from the salts, it was a constant and independent source of energy. This was radioactivity, a violent instability at the heart of the uranium atom which causes it to throw off pieces of itself as an insane man might tear off his clothes in a rage. Becquerel would later share the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre and Marie Curie, and further discoveries about the physical magic of uranium would lead to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the arms race and the existence of 440 nuclear power plants across the world, with the same source of energy burning at their cores which Shellenberger has commanded here. The work takes on newer shadings in light of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, in which a seawall was breached and the generators were disabled in a way that the designers did not foresee.

The light in these prints is like a flash from an unseen photographer, capturing a physical and intellectual moment in which the viewer is asked to examine notions of how our own “lines” are drawn by the background of a transmuted natural substance, forged by man into the most thunderous tool of warfare ever created, yet also held out as a shining hope for a future of limitless energy poured out by the unstable heart of this element, uranium. He has said the Cracker Jack images of children at play are a recollection of the photographic shadows of people against the walls of Hiroshima, caught at the moment of their annihilation. The current argument about Vermont Yankee – and the disquieting near-meltdown at Fukushima – are only the latest expressions of how our conversation with this element is not finished. Shellenberger tells us that what is most worthy of introspection is not what uranium does on its own account, but what it illuminates about our own human shapes. -- Tom Zoellner, author of "Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World" (Viking/Penguin, 2009)

The red-orange glaze made for Fiesta Ware in the 1930s and 1940s contains uranium oxide, the same uranium used to make the atomic bomb. In fact, the Fiesta Ware company’s supply of uranium was confiscated by the U.S.government to make the first atomic bombs. After about two years experimenting, I discovered that the uranium in the orange glaze remains radioactive in the dinnerware and that I can use this radioactivity to create glowing purple “nuclear” autoradiographs.* (It remains unclear why the prints result in the color purple.) Using this method, I’ve recently focused on Atari video game computer chips, titling the prints with the names of the old games. The radiation functions like an x-ray, revealing the physical make-up of the chips’ intricate interiors. I am drawing parallels in this series between radiation and computer technology, two invisible powers that were unleashed with little knowledge of the potential they had to significantly transform our world.

*An autoradiograph is a photograph made with radiation. The root definition of photography being“drawing with light”, I am in kind “drawing with radiation.” 

queen anne's lace

This work involves finding thick, flourishing patches of Queen Anne’s Lace. Many folks consider the plant a weed—it’s a prolific self-seeder—while others cultivate them in their gardens or use them medicinally. It is thought that the ingestion of seeds from Queen Anne’s Lace functions as contraception. The resulting large format, black and white prints transform this familiar plant into one that is uncanny and mysterious. The images contain visual metaphors rife in the contemporary imagination: politicians invoking our future as one that will be infused with darkness or light, the out-of-control spread of the coronavirus, the loss of women’s reproductive rights with the recent Supreme Court decision, as well as climate change and chaos caused by human’s interference with nature. Simultaneously, these works offer respite, wonder, and hope in both nature and the human imagination. 


I have been catching fireflies and having them expose sheets of film for the past six years. During the summer I decided to let the yard go wild, allowing for fireflies to establish themselves. After just a couple years there are now thousands of fireflies during their mating cycle. When this cycle begins, I use two or three sheets of film and gather fireflies for only a couple nights, trying not to upset them. When the nights work is finished I put them back in the yard in the morning. Unfortunately some fireflies have been killed in the making of these images but that is mostly because of a predator firefly that eats the others. Wherever you see purple along with the firefly light that is radioactivity, combining two independent energy sources in a single image. 

time travel

Light traveling down the string into the mirror by the speed it takes and back exposing the film I am a younger self in the mirror, then of the self making the photograph. Based upon de Selby's scientific experiments from Flann O'Brien's novel "The Third Policeman".

light before speed

For this photographic series I set up a large-format, nineteenth-century camera, wait for it to get dark, open the exposure, and “make” the photograph by setting off very powerful flash bulbs. The flash unleashes a large quantity of light (up to 110,000 lumens) and light goes everywhere, including directly into the camera lens. This method calls into question the rule-based tradition of making photographs, allowing “chance” to figure prominently in the resulting prints. At the same time, I retain evidence of the process: extension cordsand other hardware used to compose the shots are part of the picture. 

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke 

Using Format