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How do you X-ray a plane?

Artist Nick Veasey X-rays the impossible

If you’ve driven Route 1A past Boston’s Logan Airport over the last decade or so, you’ll be familiar with the work of Nick Veasey, the English photographer whose life-size, radiographic rendition of a Boeing 777 adorned the side of a United Airlines hangar until this past summer.

Over a career spanning nearly 20 years, Veasey, a 51-year-old former adman, has taken thousands of X-ray photographs. His work has been shown at galleries around the world, and last month he published the paperback edition of “X-Ray: See Through the World Around You,” a collection of his eerie, witty, exquisitely detailed images.

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That spectral aircraft, said to be the largest X-ray image ever produced, was pieced together from 500 separate exposures, created in the photographer’s lead-lined “bunker” outside London. But the scale and drama of that 777 image are misleading. Veasey’s X-rays are more likely to tease out the hidden beauty in the pieces of everyday life: a pair of boxer shorts, a teddy bear, a drill.

The intimations of mortality in Veasey’s work are clear—we are reminded of hospital visits, the implications of airport security, ghosts. But if his X-ray of a cross-legged figure reading the paper represents a kind of glib memento mori, the curiosity evident in his larger project, the effort to reveal the components of life, seems to be the very opposite of gloom. His work reminds you of a child taking apart a record player, marveling at the intricate weave of wheels and wires required to make music.

Here, in his own words, Veasey gives us a quick glimpse inside his head. This transcript was condensed and edited from a telephone interview.

Even as a kid, I was interested in how things work. I started taking X-rays about 20 years ago, after I was asked to do one of a Pepsi can for a breakfast TV show. From there, I just kept going. I loved it. I used to X-ray anything I came across that looked cool. Now I try to be more organized, but I still take too many—I can’t help it. I’m over-stimulated.

About 80 percent of my work is fine art, and 20 percent commercial. I’d say we shoot 200 pictures a year; a lot of those never see the light of day.

I’ve usually got about 15 projects on the go. Right now, I’m working on a series on classic cars—E-Type Jags, Ford Mustangs. I’ve found a way to do it without dismantling them, which is good. I’m also doing one on guns. These are death machines, horrible things, but when you X-ray them they are beautiful.

I’m doing another project with avant-garde shoemakers in Germany, one of whom made stilettos out of human teeth. I couldn’t resist the project when I heard that. Later today, I’ve got a few flowers to photograph before they die.

I’m a bit of a Luddite. People say to me, “Oh, you could do what you do with CGI.” It’s true, a lot of what I do could be done on a computer, but I like things to be authentic. The world is getting smaller, faster, and I’m going the other way. But I love X-ray, the geek in me likes seeing what’s inside things, how they work, what’s hidden away.

You could also say that my work is a metaphor for life. It’s like when you first meet someone and you’re attracted to them because they look nice. What makes you fall in love with someone, though, is what’s on the inside. This is what it’s like for me with these pictures. In my world, these are beautiful things.

People say that what I do is interesting, but that’s not enough. These pictures have to be beautiful or they’re not worth doing. They have to connect on an emotional level. I read about men who obsess over inflatable dolls, take them on picnics and to the movies and things—really. So I took X-rays of these dolls and guess what? They’re as empty as the lives of the poor souls who dote over them. Is that science or is it art?

One thing I don’t like working with, funnily enough, is the human form. I’m more interested in inanimate things. When I do use humans, they’re all the same person. It’s an Indian woman named Freda. Her bones are inside a pressurized rubber suit in a hospital in Kent. If I want to do a child, I’ll shrink her down. If someone’s playing tennis, I’ll manipulate her elbows, wrist, and shoulder. Those people sitting on the bus I shot: all Freda. The campaign for Mini, with the skeleton driving the car: Freda. I owe her. She’s helped me out big time.

I don’t work with dead bodies—although I did do something with a horse once, all this blood and stuff coming out. Not nice. Even worse was the time I had to X-ray a fast food burger—that was awful. The brightest thing in the image is the bone matter, so to see all that. Ugh.

Then there was the client who wanted a guy playing with a dog. Freda played the human part, but I needed the animal. If I’d used a live one, the radiation would have killed it within a few months. So I had about three days to find a dead dog. I called an animal shelter and said, “I know you have to put dogs down sometimes; can I have one?” They hung up on me. Then, driving along, I saw a dead badger by the side of the road. I took it back to the studio, X-rayed it, elongated its legs, and said; “Here’s your dog!”

I love my job.

Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.
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