Musicians and Microscopists: Using Photomicrographs as Album Cover Art
Note: Due to copyright issues, album cover images are not displayed within this article, but can be viewed by following the links provided throughout.
Over the years, I have seen my fair share of photomicrographs on scientific magazine covers, calendars, and holiday cards. So, it’s not too surprising that occasionally a musician will use a photomicrograph as cover art for their latest album. Such was the case when I saw the new album “Sometimes, Forever” by Sophie Allison, known as Soccer Mommy. A visit to the Soccer Mommy Music Store revealed that not only did the album’s cover feature a photomicrograph, but so did the record sleeve and bonus wall poster—same for the home page of the Soccer Mommy website. The image looked biological, but I was curious to find out what the specimen was and, possibly, who made the photomicrograph.
After buying the album, I read the credits listed in the bottom right corner of the record sleeve. There wasn’t much information about the cover art other than the name of the photographer, Sophie Hur. I contacted Hur and asked if she knew what microscopical specimens were used during the album’s photoshoot. She said Soccer Mommy used free images available on the internet, and with that bit of intel, I used the Googles Lens tool to seek out the photomicrographs. I found the images on iStock by Getty Images, and they are described as Micrograph of myeloma neoplasm bone marrow biopsy, used for the album cover and record sleeve, and Close up on pink plant cells find with microscope used for the wall poster. Aside from the images, I was also interested in knowing the microscopist who generated these photomicrographs. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much information in that regard. Both images were credited to different anonymous monikers on their respective webpages. I ran into similar dead ends with “Timelapse,” an album by the band Kovlo, with a photomicrograph of a ciliate on the cover, and the Vitamin String Quartet’s album “VSQ Performs The Strokes,” which features a photomicrograph of a cross section of a fern root.
While these examples lacked specifics about the microscopist, I found other instances in which the microscopist worked directly with the musician to create the album cover art. In one case, the recording artist provided their own samples.
Jon Hopkins, “Immunity”
The fourth studio album by Jon Hopkins, “Immunity,” is described by music critics as organic techno. The front and back covers of the album highlight photomicrographs of needles from recrystallized food coloring captured under polarized light conditions. The images were made by Linden Gledhill, a microscopist and biochemist, using an Olympus BH-2-Pol with apochromatic lenses at magnification ranges between 200X and 1000X magnification. There are eight songs on this album and Gledhill created microscopical images for each. You can view Gledhill’s microscope imaging workstation and the photomicrographs for each of the songs on “Immunity” by visiting Noisey Music by VICE. There is also a short three minute thirty-one second YouTube video montage (see below) of each song with the corresponding live fields of view. Gledhill also provided recrystallization video footage of engineered snowflakes on Ryan Teague’s music video for the song Cascades.
The Dutch trio known as Cubicolor is described as “between electronic and indie.” Their debut studio album “BRAINSUGAR” features a fusion preparation of recrystallized 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). This image of MDMA was created by microscopist Maurice Mikkers. He combines his training as an artist and certified medical laboratory technician to create images of recrystallized controlled substances under crossed polarized light conditions. Mikkers is widely known for his “Imaginarium of Tears,” a series of photomicrographs of crystallized human tears. In his TEDx presentation, below, Mikkers describes his work with both human tears and the recrystallization of controlled substances.
Ghost Poet, “Shedding Skin”
“Shedding Skin,” the third studio album by Obaro Ejimiwe, known as Ghostpoet, features photomicrographs on the album’s cover of stained skin biopsy samples taken directly from the artist’s arm. He developed the idea after viewing photomicrographs of skin biopsies online and then projecting them onto a black vinyl background. Rather than just being satisfied with using stock photomicrographs, Ejimiwe thought it would be symbolic to create and use photomicrographs of biopsies from his own skin because the songs on the album represent a redefining of himself, “shedding the skin” of the past. In the video “Shedding Skin (Behind The Artwork) ,” below, Ejimiwe outlines the entire process and his thoughts on science collaborating with art. At the end of the video, Ejimiwe gives special thanks to the hospital staff members and those who performed the biopsy and produced the photomicrographs, but it is unclear who the microscopist is.
Peter Gabriel, “New Blood”
During a period beginning in 2010, Peter Gabriel released several albums showcasing the artwork of electron microscopist Steve Gschmeissner on their covers. The first was an album titled “Scratch My Back,” a collection of cover songs performed by Gabriel. During his tour in support of “Scratch My Back,” Gabriel recorded the album “New Blood,” also featuring Gschmeissner’s electron micrographs on the cover, as did the cover of the special deluxe edition of ”New Blood.” Gabriel followed the “Scratch My Back” album with a companion release called “And I’ll Scratch Yours,” where musicians who allowed Gabriel to cover their songs on “Scratch My Back” covered one of Gabriel’s songs; it again features one of Gschmeissner’s electron micrographs.
During my hunt for photomicrographs on album covers, I found a useful website called Discogs, a Music database and marketplace where collectors of vinyl and CDs can buy and sell albums. You can search for specific attributes of an album. For example, by entering the search term “microscope,” I was served up albums with the word microscope either in the album’s title, actual microscopes used as cover art, or a curated list of albums dedicated to crystals, minerals and gems. The curator of the crystals, minerals and gems list who goes by the name “phonolite,” lists a staggering 65+ pages, with each page containing 25 entries of album covers with those attributes. Most of the entries feature images of a crystal or have a reference to crystallography, but a few included photomicrographs such as François De Roubaix’s album “Cristaux Liquides”; the Garden of Oddities’ album “Minéraux Part 1”; Holy Strays’ “Enlightenment”; and the album by Necrotik Fissure titled “Asbestos Exposure.”
Here is phonolite’s description of the Crystals, Minerals, and Gems list:
“A list dedicated to crystals, minerals & gems, as well as geology related (rocks, meteorites, fossils, caves, mining). Mostly through cover art, but track titles might also relate to those thematics…If more specifically interested in volcanism, you might also want to check my other list called Lava & Volcanoes.”
Some of the other features I like about Discogs are the additional images of an album loaded in the image carousel, which sometimes include the album’s inside contents, such as the liner notes, record sleeve, and back cover. Being able to read the liner notes will sometimes reveal information about the photomicrograph on the cover; such was the case for the one and only album by the band Mind Bomb. In the liner notes Norm Peters is credited with “Microscopy.” In searching Norm Peters and Mind Bomb, I was able to find an interview with Mind Bomb’s vocalist Matt Mercado about the album’s cover, which features a microscopical image of a mite’s head.
“No, that’s not a mistake in the liner notes of Mind Bomb’s groovy self-titled debut on Mercury. Norm Peters, a technician at the Center for Electron Microscopy of the University of Illinois, gets credit for “Microscopy” for Mind Bomb‘s cover shot of a Demodex foliculorum (that’s ”body mite” to you and me), displayed grossly larger than Mother Nature allows. “I thought the image was pretty spooky looking,” says Mind Bomb lead singer Matt Mercado…When label executives asked Mercado what he had in mind for art, he turned to brother Mark, a scientific illustrator who knows Peters. “At first, I thought he could do drawings of creatures, says Matt. Then I saw Mark’s photos of scanning electron microscopy — and I don’t think you could draw anything weirder than that.” But, adds Matt, “it’s really not that weird at all — It’s just a mite…”
Some of the Discogs entries will contain notes on the album’s Discogs webpage like this one from the electronic synth-pop band Backlash and their album “Heliotrope”:
“Images taken on a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) at the National Center for High Resolution Microscopy (NCHREM), Department Of Materials Chemistry, Lund University.”
Kris Davis’ 2019 album “Diatom Ribbons” uses multiple microscopical images of diatoms for the album’s front and back cover and liner notes. I recommend scrolling through the entire image carousel, not only for the photomicrographs, but also to read the album’s liner notes. Below is a quote from Davis describing her reason for using the microscopical images as artwork for the album:
“When I compose, I’m alternating between the micro and macro, shaping the details and then standing back to see how they make up the structure of the composition. While writing for this album I learned about diatoms, which are unicellular microalgae that live in the oceans and freshwater and soils…Up close under a scanning electron microscope, you can see these incredible ornate structures.”
The photomicrograph on the album cover of “Rainbow Dome Musick” by Steve Hillage will be familiar to the crystallographers out there. The album’s front and back cover features a uniaxial interference figure followed by a description of the specimen located on the back cover as a “polarized silica-quartz crystal.” This album was brought to my attention by John Gustav Delly after having a discussion with microscopist Peter Cooke about the formation of the interference figure on the back cover of the album.
Nine Inch Nails, “Hesitation Marks”
The eighth studio album by industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails is titled “Hesitation Marks” and is the only album I found to feature one of microscopy’s most common accessory, the microscope slide. The cover artwork was created by artist Russel Mills who also designed Nine Inch Nails’ previous album “The Downward Spiral.”
Each version of “Hesitation Marks” (vinyl, CD, etc.) has its own unique cover. Below is a description of the artwork from the Nine Inch Nails Tumblr page, and by scrolling down to the third version of the album cover’s artwork on a CD, you will see a series of microscope slides arranged horizontally at the bottom of the image. It appears that each slide contains a blood smear as the specimen. I’m basing this on the color of the material at the center of each slide and Mills’ description:
“The standard CD cover: ‘Time And Again’ (Plaster, earth, oils, acrylics, etching varnish, rusted linen, blood, microscope slides, on wood)…The works explore ideas of catharsis, of being into dissolution into being, both on a personal and sociological level. They allude to ideas about chaos and order. They deal with ways of suggesting presence in absence. They are a cross between the forensic and a pathology of the personal in which only fragments remain, in which minimal clues can suggest events that may have occurred…”
I liked the forensic and pathology aspects of Mills’ description, perhaps captured by the microscope slides, the personal fragments and minimal clues shedding light on certain aspects of the image’s story, giving the piece a certain trace evidence analysis feel.
As you can imagine, one can get lost in the endless list of album covers from the estimated 100,000 albums released each year. In the age of digital “bedroom” recordings, musicians can record and produce albums easily using their own equipment and uploading songs to TikTok and YouTube. The visual placeholder for these recordings will always be the album cover artwork no matter the format. If chosen wisely, the album cover’s image will forever be associated with the music—I’m thinking Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.” For bands in search of an eye-catching album cover image that suggests something otherworldly, you can’t go wrong with using a photomicrograph.