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Cool Pop Art—Painting Portraits with Bacteria


Zachary Copfer and Einstein. *Image source: Zachary Copfer.

 “Am I a microbiologist masquerading as an artist, or am I an artist masquerading as a microbiologist?” Zachary copfer says on his personal website, Science to the Power of Art, “I can’t seem to remember anymore.”

Copfer feels confused over how to describe himself, which is understandable because he is an artist in a lab coat.

Copfer graduated from Northern Kentucky University in 2006, with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and secondary education. After that, he worked as a microbiologist for P&G and Teva Pharmaceuticals for 5 years. However, he soon found that commercial lab was not a good fit for him. Copfer says:” I began to lose sight of all that I had found romantic about science.”

Therefore, Copfer began to pursue a master degree in fine art photography at the University of Cincinnati and started to channel his creative energies into art field. He noted:” Photography provides me with a new point of view that allows me to retrieve everything that I’ve missed about science.”


My Favorite Artist Series: Albert Einstein. *Image source: Zachary Copfer.

Through experiment, Copfer created a new art medium, “bacteriography”, as he named. Using traditional darkroom photography, the microbiologist-turned-artist developed recognizable images of growing bacteria colonies—yes, you got it—it is bacteria.


My Favorite Scientist Series: Pablo Picasso. *Image source: Zachary Copfer.

Using this new art medium, Copfer printed a series of “bacteria portraits” of world-famous scientists and artists including Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, and so on. To create a portrait, Copfer needs to cover a large petri dish (9.5 inch*9.5 inch) with a species of bacteria—Serratia marcescens, which is responsible for some hospital-acquired infections. Copfer told Cincinnati Public Radio that he selected this bacteria because it is red and it pops and shows the great color.

Then, he placed the photographs in the petri dish. For example, in one of the portraits, he laid the famous photograph of Einstein sticking his tongue out, captured by UPI photographer Arthur Sasse on the scientist’s 72nd birthday. When we develop a photograph in darkrooms, we create an image by exposing the setup to ultraviolet light, while Copfer expose it to radiation and the image cast a shadow on the bacteria. The bacteria grew in the shadow, while, they would not grow in areas where the radiation passed through. Once the bacteria colonies grew to an extent that he liked, the piece was completed and Copfer would kill the bacteria and seal the portrait using a layer of acrylic so that it can be safely displayed.


My Favorite Artist Series: Charles Darwin. *Image source: Zachary Copfer.

The resultant “bacteria portraits” are bold, pop art-like reproductions of the original photographs. The images are comprised of red dots, each of which is a tiny colony of bacteria, calling people to mind Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip style of portraiture.


Favorite Scientist Series: Leonardo da Vinci. *Image source: Zachary Copfer.

When Copfer gave titles for his works, he refers to artists da Vinci and Picasso as “scientists” and scientists Darwin and Einstein as “artists.” He believes that some people, like himself, have interchangeable titles. He says: “For me, these two areas seem to be disparate but they serve the same purpose—a way to explore my connection to everything around me”

 Source: SmithsonianInstitution Painting Portraits with Bacteria