Earlier this year, New York-based designer Craig Ward recalls seeing an image on the internet of a petri dish containing the bacteria from a child’s handprint. It made him think of one of those urban myths of the city’s subway; that whenever you hold the handrails on the train, you’re effectively shaking hands with 100 different people. An unsettling thought if there’s any truth in it.
“It was one of those lovely chemical reactions in the brain when two completely separate things suddenly click into one coherent idea,” says Ward. “The circular shape of the petri dish echoed the graphic language of the New York subway and all of a sudden I had a project for the summer.”
Ward’s idea was to obtain samples from a single train from each of the city’s subway lines and try to grow the corresponding letters or numerals out of them. Ward has form in this regard, having once grown a letter ‘A’ from pollen cells in an immunology lab for the cover of the 2010 CR Annual.
But, after trying unsuccessfully to obtain samples using papers and cotton swabs, another abstract memory saved the day. “The sponge in your sink is basically the most bacteria-ridden thing in your entire house, air pockets and holes make it perfect for accruing germs. So I ended up cutting letters from dish sponges like you’d find at home,” Ward says. He even traced the letters in Helvetica Bold – as per the subway signage – before sterilising them in a microwave.
Upon boarding a train, Ward took samples from the handrails, seats, doors and windows; the sponges were then pressed into pre-poured ‘agar plates’ and sealed with tape before being taken back to the studio. “This involved no small amount of strange looks from passengers, as you’d expect, but I got quite discreet by the end!” he says.
“No-one challenged me about it but there was a morning in early September when I found myself with a backpack full of petri dishes, swabbing the seats of the E train down by the World Trade Center. I thought about how it may have looked and decided to get out of there pretty quickly.”
Back in the studio, the designer placed his early tests in polystyrene boxes, warming them with a heat lamp. “Some samples began to show after 48 hours, some struggled to get going, but I shot them all anyway at various intervals,” he says.
“The end results were captured using just a simple fluorescent strip-light on a black background, which actually gives them quite a ‘premium’ look. Visually, I wanted to take them into this perfume packaging photography space – just clean highlights and colours relevant to the train lines, which we created using gels placed over the lamp.”
While the samples have a strange beauty, can he tell what they actually contain?
“Broadly speaking, the majority of what you’re seeing is deemed natural flora – benign or beneficial bacteria that’s native to humans and the kind that you’d exchange with, say, a handshake,” Ward explains.
“These types include Micrococus Luteus, also found in the mouth and respiratory tract – ie from sweat and saliva, and Bacillus Subtilis, found in soil and the gastrointestinal tract of humans and, interestingly, used in the 1950s as a kind of alternative medicine for intestinal problems.”
In terms of “the queasy stuff”, Ward says he has been able to identify a couple of instances of E Coli (types of which can of course cause food poisoning); Salmonella (found globally in animals and humans but can cause typhoid fever) and Proteus Vulgaris (found in soil and fecal matter, can cause wound and urinary tract infections) – a more complete list is at the bottom of this post.
Having cultivated his series of seven numbers and 15 letters into a fully formed photography project, Subvisual Subway, Ward is set to turn the work into a set of prints (see link below for info on pre-ordering).
At the very least, he says, the concept could well appeal to an agency working on a brief for a hand sanitiser, or bleach. For that though, he may need to get back on the trains with a full alphabet of sponges.
More on the project at wordsarepictures.co.uk. This article featured in last month’s travel and transport issue of CR.
Bacteria found in Ward’s samples, includes:
— E. coli
Pink to red colonies
Virulent strains cause gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections etc.
Common in lower intestine.
— Micrococcus luteus
Egg yolk / raised yellow circles
Part of the normal flora of the skin, also found in respiratory tract – saliva and sweat
— Bacillus Subtilis
White, spread out like flat cauliflower florets, gaining dimension over time
Found in soil and gastrointestinal tract of humans
— Streptococcus agalactiae (aka GBS)
Light blue pin-like small colonies
Generally harmless, part of human microbiota
— Enterococcus spp.
Blue to turquoise pinpoint colonies.
Bacteremia, urinary tract infections, diverticulitis
— Proteus mirabilis
Clear to slightly orange colonies, appear layered and spread out in discs
Kidney stones and 90% of all proteus infections in humans
— Proteus vulgaris
Small blue / green colonies
Found in soil, water, fecal matter – causes wound infections, urinary tract infections
— Pseudomonas aeruginosa
Transparent white to slightly green colonies with some diffusion into media. Some species may be tan to reddish brown.
Normal flora, found in skin, water, most man-made environments globally
— Serratia marcescens
Bathroom slime / leading cause of hospital acquired infections
— Staphylococcus aureus
White to light yellow colonies; some species may appear mauve
Common cause of skin infections, sinusitis and food poisoning
— Staphylococcus intermedius
Pink pinpoint colonies.
— Molds / yeast colonies
Fuzzy / furry white
Typically from decaying organic matter or food