Medical photographers and illustrators provide crucial images for teaching, research, healing
They’re allowed in the operating room to work during innovative surgical procedures. They witness the aftermath of trauma to a burn victim or a farmer who gets a limb caught in a machine during harvest. And they relay images to the world of what researchers see through a microscope.
Yet they don’t have medical backgrounds; most studied art or photojournalism in college. They are the medical photographers, videographers, and illustrators—about two dozen, all told—who work either as part of the University of Iowa’s Creative Media Group (CMG) or in Carver College of Medicine departments, including pathology, dentistry, otolaryngology, and ophthalmology.
The work is fast-paced—and often unnerving.
“A physician will call us and need a photo now, as they’re opening someone up in the O.R., so we whip over there and shoot it,” says Susan McClellen, an
18-year UI med photo veteran. “Most people don’t want to think about it; it’s not always pretty.”
McClellen once had to look at a nail that had punctured someone’s eye. It gave her the willies, she says, but she’s always focused on what matters most.
“It’s amazing, all the people involved and concerned with the care of one patient,” she says. “I’m there to do my job, too.”
McClellen has seen the tools of her profession change drastically. Most illustrators no longer use pen and paper but rely on computer programs to “draw” their work, and photographers have switched from film to digital cameras. Michael Harker, a photographer in ophthalmology for about eight years, and his colleague Ed Heffron, a University photographer since 1971, estimate that their department used to process between 25 and 100 rolls of film a day. Now they might do 8 to 12 rolls a week; the rest is shot digitally, with camera backs attached to high-tech lenses that look into and through the human eye.
|Nancy Zear, graphics specialist for the UI Creative Media Group, says some drawings are imaginative interpretations of things that can’t be seen, such as the motor oxons and myogenic precursors in her illustration above of human skin, while others require fidelity to reality, as in the spine drawings below by Creative Media Group designer
The University’s ophthalmic photographers wear white lab coats and are considered part of the health care team because their images help doctors detect lesions, glaucoma, and other damage. Otolaryngology is another department with a full-time photographer, Kay Klein, on staff. When doctors have patients who come to the clinic with interesting physical findings, they call on Klein, according to Richard Smith, Sterba Hearing Research Professor of Otolaryngology.
“She performs an important role, a helpful service we can offer to patients, almost like getting an X-ray,” Smith says. “She’s an integral part of our department.”
Illustrators help instructors and medical staff visually explain to students, patients, and colleagues the inner workings of the human body. Nancy Zear, a CMG employee and UI med photographer and illustrator for 23 years, finds it most fascinating to depict what people normally cannot see—right down to the cellular level.
“I’ve learned more about microbiology than you could imagine,” she says. “Sometimes a drawing is my interpretation of what a structure looks like, so that the average person could better understand. It has to be clear and simple to get a concept across.”
Ryan Potter, project assistant in the Central Microscopy Research Facilities, helps researchers fine-tune microscope-captured images for optimal quality and incorporate them into the design of posters and web pages. Each year, the microscopy staff holds an art-and-science contest and exhibits large prints of the most captivating images in the halls of Eckstein Medical Research Building.
“When I look at these photos, the first thing I see isn’t the science—I see the aesthetics,” Potter says. “But it’s also amazing to see the link between the photographs and medical research.”
by Amy Schoon