Art + Science Project: “X is For X-Ray” And The Work of Hugh Turvey

Hugh Turvey is a photographer and an artist in residence at the British Institute of Radiology. His latest project, a book app called X is For X-Ray, takes readers inside everyday objects.

Art + Science Project: “X is For X-Ray” And The Work of Hugh Turvey

The old adage “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” seems less hokey and more relevant when talking about Hugh Turvey’s art. The London-based photographer has made a name for himself by applying the technical aspects of X-ray images to everyday objects. The result? A stunning array of photographs that are a perfect blend of technology and art. “I was renowned for pulling things apart and rebuilding them…incorrectly,” says Turvey of his childhood. “My concept of transparency has become more loaded with age [and is now] somewhere between shaman and science.”


And it’s the “science” aspect that’s the key to his art. Turvey occupies the unique role as artist in residence at the British Institute of Radiology. His most recent project–a new iPad app called X is For X-Ray–gives readers an interactive peek inside everyday items.

Photograms, images captured by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light, were popularized by 20th century artist Man Ray, who took the liberty of calling them “rayographs.” Years later, Turvey is now adding a little something extra with what he refers to as “xograms.”

“X-rays are wavelengths of energy. Photograms [expose objects] to visible-light wavelengths of energy. ‘Xogram’ is my term to define the same technique using the X-ray wavelength of energy for artist purpose,” Turvey explains.

When it comes to choosing which item’s innards to display, Turvey says he’d be remiss to judge a book by its cover. “If you think you have seen everything, you can be guaranteed you have seen nothing,” he says. “I have really only touched on the surface of the artistic pursuit of transparency, and I have a long way to go.”

But it’s fair to note he’s made considerable progress so far.

Turvey’s revealing photographs aren’t just garnering praise within artistic circles–he’s actually been able to apply his technique in a more commercial aspect by creating images for movies and ad campaigns. The British Institute of Radiology saw (or didn’t see) something in Turvey’s work three years ago, dubbing him their first ever Artist in Residence. “They saw a large exhibition I put on in London in 2009 and invited me in for a chat,” says Turvey. “The result has been a wonderful relationship exploring new ways to disseminate X-ray imagery with public engagement as an educational tool and art.”


And it’s that mindset of merging education and art that sparked Turvey’s latest project: the X is for X-Ray app.

Former colleague and app developer Mike Levad approached Turvey with the idea of creating an A-Z book using his X-ray images. For the technological aspect of development, the two teamed up with interactive book publisher TouchPress, whose previous credentials include the ever-popular The Elements app. Award-winning children’s book author Paul Rosenthal rounded out the collaborative effort, penning the accompanying text for the objects. After a year of tweaking and recapturing images specifically tailored for the app, X is for X-Ray for the iPad and iPhone now stands as a modern interpretation of the classic picture book structure.

Users are given 26 interactive items to explore. Much like The Elements app, the high-res images can be rotated for a full, 360 view. Give the screen a vertical swipe, and you can see what that item is really made of. X is for X-Ray allows you to survey the inner workings of a wonderfully random assortment of everyday items including a toaster, motorcycle, and yo-yo. But it’s the teddy bear that Turvey admits is his favorite.

The title of the app may lend itself to being a kid’s book, but Turvey says it’s the imagery that transcends age groups. “It turns out that most people have a fascination with the hidden, an interest in photography, and an appreciation for how stuff works,” he says. “To accommodate a range of users, we had two text options created by Paul. The rhyme for the young, and the informative quirky text for the quizzical.”

Turvey says he’s dabbled in other art forms, but photography remains his first love and “X-ray was like discovering a long lost twin.” He’s got several top-secret ideas in the works (he did mention something about Code Name “Corn” if you care to decode that bit of info), but the unifying factor in his work will always be the fusion of art and technology.

“Being examined by modern diagnostic machines can be dehumanizing [because] there is a loss of identity–we all look the same on the inside,” he says. But striking that aforementioned balance gives us insight (literally) to what’s around us and simultaneously gives harmony to two subjects most people hold in discord. “It is a revealing question about our perception of technology and art,” Turvey says. “I never really understood this question, for without technology there would be no art.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.