X-ray artist's amazing images reveal hidden beauty

British photographer Nick Veasey creates "X-rays" of everything from toys to gadgets to Boeing 777 jumbo jets. The process involves far more than simply pushing a button.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
4 min read
Nick Veasey

Apparently Superman isn't the only one with X-ray vision.

During his nearly two-decade career, British photographer Nick Veasey has been using his own superpowers to peer inside everything from insects to MP3 players to jumbo jets--and create stunning images of their innards.

And like any accomplished superhero (or artist), Veasey makes it look easy.

To view one of his X-ray photos is to think the trick was simply in choosing the proper-size machine for the job and rather lazily pushing the button. In this scenario, the insect and the MP3 player were no-brainers. As for the passenger plane, the difficulty was just in locating an X-ray machine big enough to use on the thing (or--a more imaginative viewer might think--to shrink the plane, complete with a crew member or two, down enough to fit into a doctor's office).

To some extent the assumption about finding the right machine is correct. For an arresting X-ray of a bus (and its newspaper-reading passengers), Veasey employed the sort of cargo-scanning X-ray machine that's used at border crossings. The device examines vehicles for hidden bombs, drugs, or stowaways--one slice at a time, like a CT scanner.

But that was only the beginning. It got Veasey the bus, or a crude outline of it, but it provided little else.

X-ray artist's oeuvre radiates wonder (images)

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For one thing, Veasey can't X-ray actual human beings (at least not living ones). To get the detail he needs for a compelling image, he has to zap his subjects with radiation for minutes at a time--and, he says, with a typical medical X-ray lasting only a couple tenths of a second, his approach would be anything but safe for a person.

So instead, he uses skeletons once employed by radiologists-in-training. Or more precisely, he uses a skeleton. Her name is Frida, and she and Veasey have been working together for some time. It's Frida who appears again and again in the bus. She sits; she stands. She reads the paper; she drives the vehicle.

And this tips Veasey's hand: His images are, in fact, not one-off X-rays at all (at least not when it comes to the more complex examples). They're skillful and laboriously constructed collages, made up, in some cases, of hundreds of separate X-rays, costing hundreds of dollars apiece.

Nick Veasey

This involves more than just the need to avoid irradiating unsuspecting human models. The example of the cargo-scanning X-ray machine used for the bus is somewhat misleading. For the jumbo jet, Veasey still used the right machine, but it was nothing a plane would fit into--unless, of course, you fit it in one chunk at a time.

And this is what Veasey often does. Like engineers who X-ray airplane parts to ensure they won't malfunction, Veasey X-rays separate components; and then he puts them all together in Photoshop. This not only lets him capture objects as gigantic as a Boeing 777 (which, of course, dwarfs a mere bus), it also lets him create richly detailed and layered images that would be impossible to produce with a single X-ray.

Take the image of the Mini Cooper automobile Veasey turned out: A ghostly door is visible--along with the window-cranking mechanism inside it; the driver's seat and its suspension system; and the steering column, stick shift, and other mechanical tidbits further back in the cab--all in exquisite detail. Rendering that with a single X-ray wouldn't have worked--Veasey shot the door, the seat, and so on individually, to show each part at its best.

As you might guess, this takes awhile. Veasey and his assistants spent three months creating the image of the 777, in the process X-raying something in the neighborhood of 500 different parts. And even the simpler "X-rays" take time. An image of a plant might be painstakingly manipulated to simultaneously bring out the character of each different aspect of the object--the fullness of the stem, for example, and the delicacy of a leaf.

Where does Veasey find the patience, and the stamina, to do all this? One presumes clients such as Adobe, Hewlett-Packard, Mecedes-Benz, and United Airlines pay handsomely to feature his work in their ad campaigns. And then there are the awards (he's won a bunch) and the art collectors (Veasey exhibits his work internationally). But it's more than that. Veasey is struck--as you may well be--by the hidden beauty in things, be they jumbo jets, Mini Coopers, or even everyday cast-offs like plastic toys or bowler hats. And with all his experience, he still finds himself amazed.

"It's revealing the hidden beauty within," Veasey said of his unique calling in an interview with the BBC. "And sometimes you're surprised. You can walk down the aisle in the supermarket--and the most common and everyday things look beautiful when they're X-rayed. Equally, other things you pick up that you think will make a fantastic shot sometimes disappoint you. I've been doing it for...years, and I'm surprised every time I shoot."

Take a look at our gallery of Veasey's work, and see if you're not surprised too.