ANDREA BALDECK
BONES BOOKS & BELL JARS
PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE MÜTTER MUSEUM COLLECTION

Question: Your biography is certainly unconventional — from musician to physician to photographer — what do you see as the common thread or motivating force?

Andrea Baldeck: As a young child I became interested in both science and art (performing and visual), influenced by my beekeeper/horticulturist father and a pianist/teacher mother. Time with my dad included hikes in the woods and visits to his apiary; with my mother, trips to galleries and concerts. Photography interested my father, who made close-up images of his flowers and bees, and I recall being taken at a very early age to the George Eastman Museum in Rochester to see exhibits both contemporary and historic. What most impressed me at age four were the life-size, full-body X-rays on display.

Growing up in the '50s and early '60s, I feasted on a rich visual diet of Life magazine and the National Geographic. A photo essay on Dr. Albert Schweitzer, both musician and physician, captured my imagination: how exciting it would be to pursue that kind of life, and to record it in photographs as well! So early on, I was trying to figure out how to combine music, medicine and photography. On the most elemental level, I suspect the appeal of all three has to do with trying to find, and understand, the beauty and logic that underlie each of these disciplines, whether it's a Bach fugue, human anatomy, or the optics and chemistry of film-based camera work. There is a rigor to studying each, involving hours of practice, prolonged concentration (or "focus"), and the willingness to approach a problem from many angles.

Of course, it's difficult in life to concurrently pursue three serious interests with equal intensity, something I was reluctant to admit when younger. I'm grateful that music, medicine and photography continue to braid themselves through my life, in strands of varied width and texture that overlap and complement each other. And, while the study of each demands many hours of solitary investment, the greatest rewards derive from sharing those learned skills in concert with others, whether playing in an orchestra, caring for a patient in the operating room, or opening an exhibit.

Q: What is the story behind creating your still life compositions at the Mütter Museum?

AB: Having spent the years of medical school and residency in Philadelphia, I had long been aware of the College of Physicians and the Mütter Museum, but didn't come to know them well until I became a Fellow, long after leaving the practice of anesthesia to pursue fine art photography full time. An invitation from Dr. George Wohlreich, the CEO of the College (and former medical school classmate) to visit and meet with Library and Museum Director Robert Hicks, Ph.D., opened my eyes to the rich and varied historical collections housed within its stately building. Striking books and artifacts were on display in the Library vestibule and the Mütter Museum, and more lay sequestered in the stacks and storage.

Up to that time, my photographic pursuits included many still life studies, including a series juxtaposing sea shells and animal bones against old volumes of natural history drawings. This mix of three-dimensional reality and two-dimensional renderings made for prints that recalled the cabinets of curiosities created by collectors of an earlier age. Just a glimpse of the wonders in the library and museum awakened my imagination to the possibilities of putting together texts, tools, bones and jarred specimens to depict, in similar form, the material history of medicine. I envisioned compositions that would evoke the close relationship of art and the history of medical practice, of tableaux that would catch the eye, pique the imagination, and suggest untold stories to a wide audience.

Q: How did you go about selecting the specimens, artifacts, books, etc. from the Museum's vast collection?

AB: Collaboration with librarians and curators at the College made this project possible over eight weeks of camera work. In selecting subject matter, I tried to think both medically and visually, aiming for image-rich depictions of subjects familiar to generations of medical students (anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology), of the evolution of medical specialty practice (obstetrics and gynecology, urology, radiology, etc.), and of issues of public health.

The search began with the card catalogue — a wall of small oak drawers with wonderfully tactile, typed entries, some dog-eared from use — for books rich in illustrations to underpin the set piece of each still life. Starting with the images, I then spelunked in museum storage for objects to develop the theme: into drawers of dissecting kits to accompany anatomic atlases; to wax models of skin diseases for partnering with illustrated dermatology texts; to the bone room for specimens depicting normal development and the ravages of disease.

Often, a survey of holdings in storage would suggest other combinations of objects, sending me in new directions based on the strength of the collections. Components for each shot were staged against a backdrop of black velvet in a large room at the College graced with tall north-facing windows, the natural light source under which the images were made. Discoveries occasionally included pieces too large to be moved (especially in the attic), which were photographed in situ using available light.

Q: Did scouring this world so intently have an effect on you?

AB: It most definitely did! During many silent, solitary hours spent in pursuit of subject matter I felt distanced from contemporary urban life by more than the thick walls of the College. Handling books centuries old provoked awe at the crafts of printing and binding, at the survival of these volumes to the present day, and the many who had held and studied their pages. Gazing into drawers of surgical instruments evoked appreciation for their design and fabrication, visions of the settings in which they were used, and empathy for patients in the era before asepsis and anesthesia. Standing next to articulated skeletons, literally suspended in space and time, I was powerfully reminded of the transience of flesh and blood, and wondered about the lives and untold stories these bones represented. Sifting through the material history of medical practice gave me a new appreciation for the remarkable advances made in research, diagnosis and therapy in my lifetime alone.

Q: Have you reawakened your doctor sensors, or are these always present in your work?

AB: Production of Bones Books and Bell Jars called upon my medical sensibilities in the hunt for, and arrangement of, elements of each still life. Recollections of experiences as a medical student and physician rose vividly to mind as I perused textbooks and held instruments used by earlier generations. Memories of anatomy lab — sights, smells, textures — returned with new vividness as I handled bones and jars of surgical specimens. Going into storage and finding shelves full of dusty Gladstone bags, many scuffed from years of house calls, reminded me of my own, hibernating within a closet.

Activated "doctor sensors" were critical in crafting this particular visual narrative, but also underpin other aspects of my work, especially botanical studies. In them I entertain my fascination with plant anatomy and adaptation, expressed in exquisite structures of delicate beauty. Making images with a macro, or magnifying lens, draws attention to small details that might otherwise escape the eye, much using a microscope reveals the architecture of living tissues.

Q: Why do you choose to work solely in black and white? And in film!

AB: Black and white photography has interested me for as long as I can remember. Perhaps growing up in an era when television was in black and white, as well as most snapshots, it has always felt familiar. A fondness for vintage images and the work of the great photographers of the late 19th and early 20th century exposed me to the nuances of the medium — albumen prints, platinum/palladium, collodion wet plate, dry plate and film. Even the earliest Polaroid prints were in black and white.

Though I have a cupboard full of color slides from holiday trips in years past, when I decided to invest myself seriously in photography, black and white was my palette of choice. Ansel Adams is credited with saying that one must learn to think in black and white to work in this medium, which means training the eye and brain to appreciate attributes of a subject in the absence of color. When hues are replaced by a spectrum of grays, the viewer is drawn into the image, looking for meaning and relationships beyond the surface. Contrast, contour, form, composition and emotion assert their forces unimpeded by the seductive distraction of color. While I'm very happy to live in a colorful world, I'm enamored of the way black and white photography abstracts the world as we usually see it, compelling us to pause, look again.

Often I'm asked why I haven't "gone digital," and abandoned analog photography for speed, convenience, and transmissibility. While I have no animus toward digital photography, I continue to be much more creatively engaged by film. It is a means of capturing light with silver crystals in a negative, and translating it, with silver crystals on paper, into a positive image with a luminous visual effect distinct from that made by ink or pigment in digital processes. My preference is to make prints not at the computer, but sequestered in the dark room, undistracted by the outside world and immersed in a realm of optics, chemistry and paper under the low glow of safelights. After more than twenty years of this, I'm still captivated seeing an image swim to the surface of a tray of developer and challenged by the process of producing a fine print.

Q: Your body of work seems to be as diverse as your life — intimate portraits, sweeping landscapes, lyrical botanicals. How do you explain your artistic journey and the medley of subjects you cover?

AB: My interest in diverse subject matter probably began in childhood: sitting on the front porch absorbed in books and magazine photo essays, imagining what worlds and peoples lay beyond my rural village; rambling through wood, field and marsh; climbing trees to enjoy a new vantage point. There was so much to see, learn, explore, and make sense of. Photography was a way of sorting it out, capturing moments, telling stories.

The artistic journey as I've experienced it is about taking the camera along almost everywhere, watchful and ready for whatever shows up. Rarely do I start with a fixed idea for a project, going after images to fulfill that preconceived notion. Rather, I photograph everything that catches my eye — faces, landscapes, botanicals, abstracts — and later, after developing negatives and making contact sheets, see what of interest sifts out. Over time (and this may be years), broad subject categories emerge and coalesce into portfolios. Some become books and exhibits, others simmer on back burners, waiting to be further stirred and seasoned. The process is organic, unfolding like the branches of a tree, under which new discoveries await amid the light and shadows. I remain, as ever, avid for the hunt.