The final frontier

When visitors to the Columbia Museum of Art see the photographs by University of South Carolina senior Julia Bennett they might think they are seeing pictures of a far off galaxy. But in fact, the images are of a frontier much closer. The framed works of art are digital prints of sea plankton, the microscopic organisms that form the foundation for all sea life.

“I hope my art sparks conversations about the oceans,” says Bennett, a marine science major who is equally adept in both science and photography labs.

Her photographic exhibition, “Into the Umbra: USC Photography’s 2015 Review Prize Show,” is currently on view at the museum located on Main Street.

The images, captured in-microscope, invite viewers to observe samples of plankton from an abstract visual framework and to consider artistically, and perhaps scientifically, the oceans surrounding us.

A native of Pennsylvania, Bennett developed a deep interest in marine science and photography while in high school. “But I didn’t combine those interests until coming to USC,” she says. “Photography has always been a creative outlet and a relief from the math and science courses.”

Professor Tammie Richardson’s Living Ocean class inspired Bennett to bring her two passions together. “I was blown away. I wanted to share the color and symmetry of sea plankton with others,” she recalls. Then an internship in Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Integrated Marine Observing System offered the opportunity to photograph unique plankton specimens.

Plankton lives for about three days, Bennett explains. “So the work was very intense when the samples were alive. Once they die, they lose their color and vibrancy.”

Bennett achieves her ethereal and otherworldly pictures by manipulating the microscope’s light sources. By approaching the project from an aesthetic point of view, she sought to make viewers stop and wonder. “I knew an abstract approach would gather more questions and spark conversations. These pictures frame the ocean as an unexplored frontier right here on Earth. It's an environment that should be explored, preserved and not use as a resource of exploitation,” she says.

“Julia has always approached her photographic work in a unique way and as a partner to her marine biology research,” says Kathleen Robbins, the coordinator of photography in the School of Visual Art and Design. “Her work taps into the relationship between science and art, but it also contains a unique poetic drive. The images are sincere, romantic explorations that result from Julia's deep fascination with the ocean. There is a lyrical quality to the photographs that is transformative for the viewer.”

When asked if she is an artist or a scientist, Bennett is quick reply that she is both. “Artistic and scientific processes are very similar,” she says. “Artists and scientists spend lots of time in labs, they follow prescribed rules and workflows. And both disciplines are driven to discover and create something new.”

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