Over the summer of 2015, I rode the trains of each of New York City's twenty-two subway lines, collecting bacterial samples from hand rails, seats and other high traffic surfaces in an attempt to create an unconventional series of portraits of the city’s complex eco-system and a snapshot of the city at large.
A selection of images from the series can be found below.
The samples were taken using sterilized sponges that had been pre-cut into the letter or number of the subway line from which the sample was to be taken - A, C, 1, 6 etc etc. The swabs were then pressed into pre-poured agar plates - their circular shape echoing the graphic language of the subway - and incubated for up to a week in his Brooklyn workshop, and photographed at various stages of development before being safely neutralized and disposed of.
The resulting images are a portrait of the complex microcosm that each of us contribute to and are a part of, and serve as an excellent visual analogy for diversity of the city at large. They hopefully also serve as a reminder that in a place that can make you feel extremely small, there are countless billions of smaller inhabitants.
The petri dishes were lit with a single strip light for a graphic clarity and to further tie them to the lines they represent, I used coloured gels over the lamp to introduce colour to the pieces.
While I approached this as a purely aesthetic project, the question of course has come up regarding the actual contents of the photographs. The petri dishes were filled with tryptic soy agar and using a guide supplied by the manufacturers, I was able to visually identify some of the following kinds of bacteria. It should be noted that visual identification is not recommended for identification but taking individual samples of each colony for identification purposes was not possible.
— 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