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Homemade undersea scanner finds strange new world

Nathaniel Stern dives beneath the sea armed with DIY photography rigs toggled from custom electronics. The artist's results? Bizarre and beautiful.

This rig has a bicycle valve so Stern can vacuum-seal it closed when he goes underwater. He got it down to 30 feet before experiencing leaks. Nathaniel Stern

It's easy to find a good compact underwater camera, but artist Nathaniel Stern opted to go a different route for his deep-sea imaging. Really different. He strapped on homemade rigs built from custom electronics and software, melted and welded plexiglass, plastic bags, duct tape, and other bits and bobs and proceeded to dive into the subaqueous world.

The resulting odd and beautiful renderings make up "Rippling Images," a new series of fluid and often-abstract images of flora and fauna created as Stern and his marine-rated contraptions dove along a live coral reef off the coast of Key Largo in Florida. Because Stern wears the gizmos, his movements help compose the shots, some of which would look more at home hanging in the Museum of Modern Art than among other, more typical undersea photographs.

As he puts it, "I perform images into existence."

Stern gets up close with a three-eyed undersea creature, or maybe that's just the photographic effect. (Click to enlarge.) Nathaniel Stern

"My movements underwater, my relations to life and gravity, what I see and cannot see, fish and plants, breathing and fluidity, all affect and are affected as these images [are] being made," Stern, a professor of art and design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Peck School of the Arts, says on the project's website.

The images are an outgrowth of Stern's ongoing "Compressionism" series, in which he hitches a flat-bed desktop scanner, computing device, and custom battery pack to his body and moves through the terrestrial world doing things like swinging over flowers or jumping over bricks to capture images of objects and spaces. When he captures a shot, every part of the image is broken up into moments of time because of how the scanner beam moves across the surface of the scanner and how Stern maneuvers the entire custom rig across the landscape.

For the aqueous version of his art, Stern spent three months getting certified to scuba dive. He and his team designed 10 underwater systems, and built 5 of them to completion. He toted 3 of these hacked-together getups under the sea.

"They leaked, they broke, they scanned scratches on the surface of the boxes, they reflected, they captured things that I never wanted and never intended," Stern reports, "and that is precisely the nature of experimental work."

Stern, whose art often focuses on how people engage with and experience the world, previously afforded us Earth-bound social-media addicts the chance to tweet to aliens.

"Rippling Images" will be on display at the Turbine Art Fair in Johannesburg from July 17 to 20, and as a solo show at the Tory Folliard Gallery in Milwaukee in October. For a deeper dive (so to speak) into the project, watch this video.

"Flower," a digital print on metallic paper. "The colors and hairs and mossy-like textures came out stronger than I ever could have imagined, in formation, soft and aqueous," Stern told Crave of his technique. Nathaniel Stern
"Metallic," one of the "Rippling Images" pieces created with one of Stern's undersea rigs. Nathaniel Stern
Some of the works from the series look like they'd be at home at a modern-art museum. Nathaniel Stern