The Macabre Beauty of Medical Photographs

Norman Barker was fresh out of the Maryland Institute College of Art when he got an assignment to photograph a kidney. The human kidney, extracted during an autopsy, was riddled with cysts, a sign of polycystic kidney disease.

“The physician told me to make sure that it’s ‘beautiful’ because it was being used for publication in a prestigious medical journal,” writes Barker in his latest book, Hidden Beauty: Exploring the Aesthetics of Medical Science. “I can remember thinking to myself; this doctor is crazy, how am I going to make this sickly red specimen look beautiful?”

Thirty years later, the medical photographer and associate professor of pathology and art at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine will tell you that debilitating human diseases can actually be quite photogenic under the microscope, particularly when the professionals studying them use color stains to enhance different shapes and patterns.

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