Instagerms: See A Photographer’s Strangely Beautiful Portraits Of His Own Bacteria

Photographer Erno-Erik Raitanen explains how and why he created some of the most unorthodox self-portraits ever.

We’ve seen so many different ways to create a self-portrait, but nothing on this scale before.


Erno-Erik Raitanen cheekily refers to his latest project as a series of self-portraits, but they don’t actually resemble the photographer himself, as much as they do a stoner’s screensaver or a Flaming Lips album cover. Although film is involved, a camera is not. The project is called “Bacteriograms,” and it’s comprised of images created using bacteria from Raitanen’s body.

“I got this idea from seeing some negatives and prints that had been buried in the ground or left exposed to elements,” Raitanen says. “I just wanted to create something more specific in a more controlled environment, so I built this makeshift lab in my basement.”

As Raitenan began his project, he didn’t know how the results would ultimately come out. It took him a long time and many separate attempts to figure out how to cultivate bacteria on film stock. When the images started coming out with dazzling color and otherworldly contortions, he knew his self-portrait-as-science-experiment was a success.

“The process itself is pretty much a replication of the processes used in microbiology to cultivate bacteria on agar in petri dishes,” Raitenan says. “Instead of agar, I just used the film gelatin as my growth medium. As the bacteria grows, it consumes the gelatin layers that together make all the colors in a color photograph, and creates all these random patterns and colors.”

Raitenan used a cotton swab to collect bacteria from his own body, namely his mouth, and applied it to film negatives. He used large-format color negatives right out of the package and fogged them to various degrees. These negatives were left blank, with nothing on the film except for the bacteria. Then they were processed over the course of about a week, allowing as little light to get through as possible. Voila: “Bacteriograms.”

“There were plenty of ideas that I was working through myself while creating these images, like questioning the nature of photographic portraiture and the relation between science and art in photography,” Raitenan says. “For me, the series is as much or even more about the process than it is about the end results. I see this conceptual side of the project adding further depth to the images.” He adds, “I am very happy, though, if people just appreciate them as beautiful images.”


See more of the Bacteriograms in the slide show above.