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Seattle Aquarium to Feature Art Exhibition In Spring 2014

The Seattle Aquarium is the ninth largest aquarium in the U.S. by attendance and among the top five paid visitor attractions in the Puget Sound region. Since our opening, we’ve hosted over 22 million visitors and provided marine conservation education to over 1.6 million school children. We’re proud to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

In 2007, the Aquarium opened a major expansion that added 18,000 square feet of space to the facility, including an impressive 120,000-gallon exhibit, a gift shop, café, meeting/event space and more. Currently, the Aquarium’s animal collection is housed within six major exhibits: Window on Washington Waters, Life on the Edge, Pacific Coral Reef, Birds & Shores, the Underwater Dome and Marine Mammals. The aquarium has recently undergone renovation and is set to host an art exhibition in spring 2014. We are especially interested in the picture show with the images shown below:

The photographs in this mesmerizing show feature fish that have been specially treated to make the stained skeletal tissues visible through the skin and flesh. The technique, developed by Dr. Summers, uses dyes, hydrogen peroxide, a digestive enzyme and glycerin to make the flesh seem to disappear. Poetry by Sierra Nelson accompanies each image.

Dr. Summers is a professor at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs and was the scientific consultant on Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” The research that led to this exhibit was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The exhibit is 14 large format prints of photographs on aluminum plate, each accompanied by a poem inspired by the image. The photos were taken by Adam Summers and processed by Ilya Brook. The Poems were written by Sierra Nelson.

The fishes depicted here have been specially treated to make the stained skeletal tissues visible through the skin and flesh. The technique uses two vital dyes – Alcian Blue to stain cartilaginous elements a deep blue and Alizarin Red S to turn mineralized tissue crimson. The specimen is then lightly bleached with hydrogen peroxide to remove dark pigments, leaving a snow-white fish. Flesh is dissolved with Trypsin, a digestive enzyme found in your intestine. Trypsin attacks most proteins but does not harm collagen, the principle fibrous material that holds the skeleton and skin together. In order to make the skin and remaining connective tissue invisible the entire specimen is immersed in glycerin. The index of refraction of collagen is very similar to that of glycerin, so the flesh seems to disappear. If you return the specimen to water the collagen will turn white again and the skeleton will be hidden. This technique is only effective on specimens that are less than about 1cm in thickness, and takes much longer for thick specimens than thin. A small fish might take 3 days to process while a larger animal could take several months.

Images are made while the fish is in glycerin on a light table with flash fill lighting. The total length of most specimens is around 25mm, though the largest is 170mm across, so a macro lens on a Canon digital SLR is used to capture the image. The photograph is printed in archival inks on an aluminum plate in a limited edition of five.

These particular specimens were all collected either as by-catch from fishery operations, incidental mortality during scientific collection, or as part of a study on the developmental trajectory of the fish skeleton.