Ideas

Brainiac

A photographer and a physicist team up

A balloonfish.

Keith Ellenbogen/New England Aquarium

A balloonfish.

On Saturday I caught up by phone with Keith Ellenbogen and Allan Adams as they huddled in a corner of Logan Airport. Ellenbogen, an underwater photographer, and Adams, a theoretical physicist at MIT, were on their way to Patagonia, where they were scheduled to teach a one-week class on marine photography and also shoot a breeding ground for elephant seals.

That a physicist and a photographer would be professional traveling companions is a little unusual. Ellenbogen and Adams first met at a dinner party in 2013. At the time, Ellenbogen was working with the New England Aquarium to photograph animals for marketing materials and Adams had recently happened upon a stash of high-speed video equipment at MIT. They got talking and imagined they might produce something neat by applying MIT’s high-end, high-speed cameras to the animals at the aquarium.

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For their first shoot, Ellenbogen took high-speed video of the squid-like cuttlefish seizing its next meal in a dramatically quick action that’s hard to glimpse. But through the lens of a high-speed camera, which can takes hundreds of frames per second and perceive things many times faster than the human eye, the cuttlefish strike slowed to a long, balletic movement.

“It engulfed the thing in the blink of an eye, but when we watched it on a monitor we could see it in 30 seconds of time, the cuttlefish approaching, its long tentacle striking,” says Ellenbogen.

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The leaders of the aquarium were so impressed with the footage that they did something they hadn’t done in decades.

“We hadn’t been able to run television commercials since the 1970s,” says Jane Wolfson, head of marketing and communications at the aquarium. “This created an opportunity for us to do that. We came up with ‘Let Your Imagination Swim Wild.’ This video was perfect.”

Keith Ellenbogen/New England Aquarium

An angelfish.

After the shoot, Adams and Ellenbogen returned to their day jobs — Adams doing research on fluid dynamics inside black holes and Ellenbogen flying around the world taking photographs to promote marine conservation. They kept in touch.

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When Adams helped to arrange for Ellenbogen to receive a MIT visiting artist fellowship this year, it seemed only natural that they’d teach a class together.

In his work as a physicist, Adams spends a lot of time trying to visualize the geometry of events inside the impenetrable confines of a black hole. He says that style of thinking has helped him contribute to the shoots he and Ellenbogen have approached together.

“An awful lot of what I do in physics is visualization and geometry,” he says. “When you’re trying to prepare the scene to create an image that doesn’t exist in world, that involves an enormous amount of imagination of geometry as well. It turns out a lot of those intuitions and strategies are deeply overlapping.”

Next semester the pair will teach underwater conservation photography and continue to experiment with new camera techniques. One of their main goals is to come up with new ways to light the scenes they want to photograph. Lighting is a challenge with any kind of photography—it’s doubly hard at high speeds, where less exposure time means more light is needed, and triply hard underwater.

I asked Ellenbogen and Adams what kinds of innovations they were experimenting with and both were coy. “Ask us again in six months,” Ellenbogen said in a cheery voice, as the Logan public address system droned in the background and the two men prepared to board their flight south.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

Watch: A spot from ‘Let Your Imagination Swim Wild’

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the length of time a class on marine photography was scheduled to be held. It is a one-week class.

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