Cancer Research as Film Noir

Hard-nosed detectives chase cancer through the back-alleys of medical science

Brendan Seibel


Late one night Jay Gould was discussing biomedicine with a cancer growth researcher when an idea hit him like a ton of bricks. The dim-lighting, the quiet hum of machines, an unseen menace who must be stopped. So he cast scientists as detectives, hunting the villain of cancer through their laboratories at Louisiana Tech University.

Here he talks a little about the project and his life as a photographer, teacher and scientific autodidact.

The series came directly from a conversation with Dr. Mark DeCoster, who was researching cancer growth and treatment through the use of nanotechnology. He tended to be the only person in his office and lab very late at night, and so most of the lights in the building were scheduled to be off, which gave our conversations the right ambience.

One night he said “I want to interrogate the nervous system,” and I just could not get that out of my head. I immediately pictured him in his darkly lit lab, rather than a private eye in an inconspicuous car, watching his suspect night after night. It gave me a theme to attach to their work, an analogy, which is something both science and art require.

Film noir was the perfect idea for me, because the villains in this genre are often cruel, ambivalent and strange … which to me are the perfect words to describe cancer.

I ended up at Louisiana Tech University because I wanted a full-time teaching job and I was totally willing to go anywhere to get it. Certainly one of the great advantages of being an artist at a more engineering-oriented school was meeting scientists and being involved with their departments from time to time.

Some of the more enlightened researchers were convinced that having artists amongst them would be helpful to them and their students, which lead to an official fellowship in a nanotechnology lab and this particular artwork.

The lighting in most of my work tends to be reserved — or at least not draw attention to itself — with the exception of my still life work. The biggest experiment of this [project] was to work with people within their environments using such dramatic lighting.

The technique itself is more fun than it is challenging, but what is difficult is explaining to these busy subjects what you are doing. They take their research very seriously and clearly would not want it trivialized, so I was cautious to explain the context of my work and the respect I have for theirs.

I was incredibly lucky to meet a group of scientists who, in addition to being brilliant, were creative and playful. Once I had made a few images and explained the motivation of the aesthetic they were happy to be involved.

Their input was crucial, but mostly they were happy to be directed. I often tried to involve them, but they seemed most comfortable if I took control of the time we had together or setup around them while they were just going about their usual business.

Hitchcock will always be a significant figure for me, partly for the aesthetic style, but also because of the cerebral nature of his work. I also loved medical thrillers as a kid, and devoured absolutely every book by Robin Cook. I haven’t opened one of these books in years, but they really must have sunk in deep.

Of course, because I’m a photographer and so much of my earliest work took place in jazz clubs, Roy DeCarava and Herman Leonard really were huge aesthetic influences.

I’ll admit that much of the time I was completely lost about what the researchers were talking about, especially at the beginning. So, we figured out some ways that I could get some tutoring.

I attended small graduate student research meetings where I could ask questions in a less intense environment. I could also enter approved labs and be a fly on the wall while they were working. Often I found that many researchers would happily chatter while methodically working, and what they would say in those moments were so much clearer than a lecture or paper created for the ears and eyes of the less naïve.

Much of the research that I witnessed was examining how cancer attacks the cells of the nervous system. Because materials can be very, very expensive, and they need serious quantification, they create nano-samples to culture and observe. From there, they also use similar testing techniques to test delivery systems that may disrupt or change the instructions to the cancer cells. They are really seeking treatments that are seriously cunning and less invasive … or sneaky! Again, my noir feeling comes out when I think of the fight between these serious adversaries.

My interest in science came very early. My dad was a medical doctor and was always willing to give detailed explanations to my many, many questions. I have always been driven by images, so often the textbooks would come out, which I could page through for days. Both he and my mom were encouraging of exploring and experimenting, so I definitely trace my interest back to that.

I am particularly drawn to physics, in particular cosmology and more theoretical models. The fact that so much of this field rests on the what is currently unobservable is incredibly fascinating and requires all my imagination to even fathom. I’m also quite fond of biology, which probably traces back to those medical texts of my father’s. I started reading a Stephen Jay Gould book as a joke once, but went on a serious binge of his work for the next several years. He is still one of my very favorites.

I was actually enrolled as a mechanical engineering student at a university before making a sudden switch to a tiny, private art school. I grew up assuming that I would end up as an engineer or a medical doctor. Those were always my paths until I realized that I had an incredible amount of anxiety about those choices.

I believed in my ability to analyze and problem solve, but was enthralled with the moments where I could create and tell stories through objects and images. I still question this choice, I think we artists do a little bit, but I know that it was the right path.

Unfortunately I left Louisiana shortly after making this series. If I had remained near to this lab and group of researchers, I would have very much enjoyed continuing it. Perhaps someday I will pick it up again. However, I have really enjoyed the work that I have made since. I live by the motto that “you should love your own artwork,” and I really do.

Since this time I have pushed into more abstract scientific themes that I have always found to be incredibly challenging, such as quantum mechanics and cosmology. With these new themes I’m using more construction in my work, both as elements to be photographed as well as sculptural installation results.

I joke with my students that I gravitated towards photography because it had a button, but that isn’t far from the truth. Drawing and building things was something that I loved, even as a child, but once I discovered that a camera could actually be controlled and that I could actually create stories using it, I was hooked.

I’m highly methodical, but truly love to write my own rules and steps, so with photography being a fairly young art-form I have always felt the potential to play and evolve with it. It always seems to boil down to the fact that I’m a meddler. I have always loved to take things apart, touch things I shouldn’t, and test “what-if” scenarios. Photographs, with their long-standing role as witness, just seem to suit me recording my methodology and the process of my imagination.

Like most artist/teachers, I struggle to remain as productive during the school year as I do during breaks, but I feel like I allow myself a good amount of time to focus on my projects.

Most of the work is self-funded initially, but once I am in-progress I receive grants fairly regularly and can push projects forward with some print sales. I genuinely love teaching and have no plans to transition away from it. However, I’m always planning better ways to enjoy it even more and find more time to work on my projects.

I’m currently working on a documentary project about amateur rocketry that I’m really excited about. I have been working on it off and on for quite a while, but have received some funding to pursue it more frequently. I also have some unique projects involving photographic constructions using laser-cut and heat molded acrylic.

All images and commentary by Jay Gould

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Brendan Seibel

Interested in the interesting. Been at @Timeline_Now, @wired, @medium, @motherboard, elsewhere.