As a marine scientist and artist, Oriana Poindexter is well aware of the long history of women who study marine life. “Historically, women would go tide pooling at low tide and collect kelp from the tide pools without actually getting all the way in the water,” she said.
Based in San Diego, Poindexter studies sustainable fisheries and ocean habitats. As an artist she uses photography “as an excuse to go looking for things outside and in nature.” Rather than wading, though, Poindexter dives to get an intimate look at the ocean.
In 2012, she found out about the enormous collection of ocean plant and animal specimens at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and knew she had to photograph it. Taking pictures of the specimens inspired her to learn more about them and pursue a career in marine biology. Poindexter learned how Ellen Browning Scripps, for whom the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is named, collected and pressed delicate and difficult-to-handle ocean plants.
She also knew about Anna Atkins, an artist and botanist working in the 1800s, when photography was new. Atkins turned to this recently invented medium, specifically cyanotypes, to create accurate representations of the algae and other plants she studied. In 1843, Atkins published British Algae, one of the first books of photographs ever created. “Atkins was the first to take advantage of photography in such a scientific and methodical way,” said Getty photographs curator Carolyn Peter.
To make a cyanotype, the plant is placed directly on treated paper, and this piece of paper is then exposed to sunlight. The parts of the paper that are exposed to the light turn bright blue while the areas that are covered by the specimen remain white. This creates a very direct and accurate representation of the plant; even the most delicate tendrils of Atkins’s algae were recorded. “She saw the potential in the new reproductive medium of photography to more accurately and quickly record her beloved botanical subjects,” said Peter.
Inspired by Atkins and contemporary photographers like Meghann Riepenhoff, Poindexter makes cyanotypes to represent the wonder she experiences from the ocean. “That feeling of movement and light, the way that it gets filtered down in the water, through the kelp,” as she described it. “There’s plenty of unbelievable, incredibly high-resolution digital photography of underwater species. But I think what’s really lacking is imagery that conjures up that feeling of being in the water and being in the kelp forest.”
Poindexter dives as often as conditions allow—sometimes several times a week—to collect giant kelp, which she then arrays on photosensitive paper, lays out in the sun either at home or on the beach, and then rinses to set the print. (Once, on a research trip to Antarctica, she laid out her specimens on the deck of a boat and rinsed the prints in her tiny cabin shower.)
Poindexter’s cyanotypes also convey a lot of scientific information. As with Atkins’s images, her prints are accurate records of the specimens she uses, reflecting their exact shape and size. (She’s used kelp as long as 7 feet, but it grows up to 175 feet. She’s joked that she needs to find bigger paper, but she’d love to make something that large!) She also records where she finds each plant, just as Atkins and Scripps did. This is an important detail for future scientists because it’s possible that as the climate or environment changes, the areas where certain plant and animal species are found may change, too.
Ultimately, though, Poindexter’s goal is as emotional as it is scientific. “I want to get people excited about the ocean. And to me, the ocean really does a way better job of inspiring people than any intermediary can. So my goal is to try and give people a glimpse of being underwater.”