• January 21, 2014

Hugh Turvey: Inside the Life of an X-Ray Artist

This post was originally published in January 2014. We’re resurfacing it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts.—The Proof Team

Hugh Turvey is a British artist and photographer who uses x-ray technology to create what he calls xograms, a fusion of visible light and x-ray imagery. I first worked with him for an assignment in the magazine and have to come to rely on his expertise when it comes to seeing the unseen. I spoke with him about his work and recent photo published in the February issue of National Geographic magazine.

Picture of an x-ray fish
X-ray of a goldfish in a bowl

“I am an experimentalist and I think in images. Since I started working with x-ray in the late 1990s, I am constantly amazed with how little I know.”—Hugh Turvey

JEANNE MODDERMAN: Tell me about your initial foray into x-ray imaging.

HUGH TURVEY: My x-ray passion was ignited after a designer friend asked for a broken bone image for an album cover. At the time, I was doing a four-year apprenticeship with iconic music photographer Gered Mankowitz in London. I took a walk from his studio in Belsize Park up to the local hospital to meet the head of radiography to seek his advice. (Oh, and yes, I was planning to be a rock-and-roll photographer.)

Picture of dog in cone
An x-ray image of a dachshund wearing a protective cone

JEANNE: What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

HUGH: Density defines my work. Very big or very small objects challenge the technology and physics. Commercially we have been asked to x-ray a huge range of subjects over the years. We once had a call from Saatchi Advertising in London wanting to know if I could x-ray a building. In my mind nothing is impossible, but a line has to be drawn somewhere.

The trickiest image was trying to get a series of simultaneous rotating x-ray and visible light objects for an educational eBook and app called X Is for X-Ray. This had never been done before and the technology didn’t really exist. So with a lot of patience and melding of techniques we were able to introduce kids to science in an easily digestible format. I am very proud of this and am continuing work on it.

Picture of womans foot x-ray high heels
Turvey experimented by photographing his wife’s foot in a high-heeled shoe.

JEANNE: Do you have a favorite image?

HUGH: One of my personal favorite images is titled “Femme Fatale.” It is a colored x-ray image of a woman’s foot in a stiletto shoe. It is one of my first images—transparent, self-explanatory, and [it] has become an iconic image inadvertently, possibly made more unique by radiation law amendments. It also happens to be my wife and a fitting portrait of my sole mate … pun intended.

Picture of elephant skull tusks x-ray
X-ray image of an elephant skull and tusks

JEANNE: Your work has been published a few times in National Geographic magazine. I recently assigned you to x-ray an elephant skull for the February issue. Can you talk about the process?

HUGH: Have you ever tried to get an elephant skull? Have you ever tried to lift an elephant skull? It turns out that I have now, and needless to say it was not easy.

We are accustomed to sourcing specimens and had recently imaged a huge python for National Geographic and a series of peregrine falcons for Discovery. However, an elephant skull with good teeth in the mandible was a little more elusive. We were put in contact with a company who works to ensure the welfare of nondomesticated, wild animals which have been abandoned, confiscated, or surrendered. They had not only a skull and mandible, but also the tusks, a collection of ivory and skin items, and an elephant foot table. (The total insurance value of these objects was nearly $150,000!) To lift the skull required three people, and two for the mandible.

Normal medical equipment is very finely calibrated to the human body and useless for this application. We were forced to upgrade to industrial x-ray, which is normally used for x-raying engineering structures, such as bridges.

Picture of x-ray elephant mandible teeth
An x-ray image shows a side view of an elephant mandible and teeth.

JEANNE: Can you talk about your post-process work? What goes into making the finished product?

HUGH: We have huge pieces of film that need digitizing using photographic scanners. These are layered and combined to produce a grayscale image at approximately one gigabite. Coloring is where you can interject depth back into the image and control the path of the eye over the image. Even though I have written the smallest reply to this question, post-process accounts for at least 70 percent of my time!

Picture of x-ray motorcycle
Composite x-ray image of a motorcycle showing individual film sections

Hugh Turvey’s solo show “X-POSÉ: Material and Surface” will be on display at the Oxo Tower Wharf in London from February 12 to 23. Follow Jeanne Modderman on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 69 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Fiona Mellor
    May 20, 2015

    For those worried about ethics and risk etc: No effects have ever been proven at doses less than 10mSv http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2663584/ Also it is erfectly ethical to irradiate healthy people if they give INFORMED CONSENT.
    Great art work

  2. VolleyballCrazy
    April 16, 2014

    Cool! Keep up the good work!

  3. Kuan LC
    April 9, 2014

    I am a rad tech. I would like to know how you manage to add colour to a black and white x-ray images. How radiation protection is taken care of when you work. I know this area is not much taken into consideration when imaging the animals.

  4. Robin Strong
    April 3, 2014

    Excellent – loved/hated the “sole mate” high-heel shot at the same time!

    BTW, the radiation dose from these x-rays is very, very low! An average person is exposed to around 300-360 mrem of exposure per year naturally from space (increases with altitude and flying), the environment (some areas have high levels of Radon or Thorium), ingested food, watching TV, etc. A foot x-ray exposes you to around 1 mrem more, a dental x-ray 5-6 mrem.

  5. Tracy Kinsey
    March 25, 2014

    These photos are pretty, but does an ethics board oversee this use of ionizing radiation on animals and humans?

  6. TE
    March 16, 2014

    I am reminded of the early 20th century x-ray enthusiasts who often died unpleasant deaths for their art. Of course the radiation doses are presumably much lower for the above pictures, but it still gives me the creeps to see someone being x-rayed just for the fun of it.

  7. Jane Platt
    March 15, 2014

    Although these images are excellent and interesting, there can never be justification for exposing live people and animals to X-rays. Medical exposures are covered by IR(ME)R2000 regulations which would not allow this exposure even if all IRR99 regs were met. This is not ethical!

  8. Michelle de Villiers
    March 7, 2014

    Inspiring and different!

  9. Reed
    February 10, 2014

    I love the images BUT, when you take human images for the sake of art you have crossed the line in keeping the dose as low as reasonably achievable and failed to consider that unnecessary radiation exposure always posses a level of risk that could result in harm. Where the benefit is “art” rather than diagnostic need, that risk borders on unwarranted or perhaps even unacceptable.

  10. Donna B
    February 7, 2014

    I love these images! As a retired x-ray tech my job would have been so much more interesting if I could have seen images like these once in
    awhile. Beautiful work.

  11. Angie Reed
    February 5, 2014

    I find this to be extraordinary it is beautiful how even an X ray can be so clear and so weird that it is amazing. I love it!

  12. Simon Sagala-Mulindwa
    February 5, 2014

    Ingenius Creativity. Bold and Innovative Artistry. Any chances of utilising 3D Printing Technology?

  13. tracey
    February 5, 2014

    wow, i would love to see one of my cat jumping, or my spin on a office chair, would give my boss reson to get me a new 1..lol..really fantastic!! i want to see more

  14. Margaret Murray
    February 4, 2014

    Very Instersting Work

  15. Gaybu.t
    February 3, 2014

    Awesome work..keep on creating…

  16. j munson
    February 2, 2014

    very interesting work…and the foot ? …..ouch !

  17. Rod
    February 2, 2014

    Fantastic !

  18. Adela Shah
    February 2, 2014

    Interesting work

  19. Miriam Aguirre (@miri_aguirre)
    February 1, 2014


  20. Biplab Sarlkar
    February 1, 2014

    This is ethically wrong . No leaving object can not be exposed to Xray unless otherwise it is essential, for example medical use. Xray exposure can not be done for fun. for example the foot with the high hill shoes this part of the body exposed to radiation , which may lead to a stochastic effect. National Geographic also should stop promoting such unethical practice. Further information regarding the exray exposure and its consequence can be found in International Atomic energy agency (IAEA) web site.

  21. George Okoh
    January 31, 2014

    Excellent work.
    But looking at the photo of the foot in heel I cant’t help wondering about the pain we through in the name of fashion

  22. Michelle collins
    January 31, 2014

    Interesting work

  23. Roswitha Bwanga
    January 30, 2014

    I think its a new form of art. Awesome!
    I like the shoe, dog ang fish.

  24. Tina
    January 30, 2014

    I LOVE this. Especially, ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘The motorcycle’. I would hang those in my home. This is great art. I would love to see more. Is there an exhibit in New York City?

  25. Agnes Ortiz
    January 30, 2014

    Different and extraordinary work. That makes a good artist the best.

  26. Ismi Ningtyas
    January 29, 2014

    amazing amazing amazing amazing amaziing!

  27. Protip Kumar Chatterjee
    January 29, 2014

    Fantastic works. I loved it & want to see more such.

  28. Amrouche
    January 29, 2014

    Great art.

  29. Bryan A.G.McCarthy
    January 28, 2014

    I found the X-Ray of your “sole mate”disturbing and educational at the same time.

  30. Shishir
    January 28, 2014


  31. Adriana
    January 27, 2014

    exc xray art work

  32. Mary Perry
    January 27, 2014

    Thank-you for the insite into this amazing process.

  33. dylanox
    January 25, 2014

    very interesting i like it so

  34. C.L. Stephenson
    January 24, 2014

    Extraordinary! I think it is an amazing and creative medium. I am in love with the fish – would look great in my house 🙂

    January 23, 2014

    very nice

  36. ipek$
    January 23, 2014

    Çok güzel olmuş.

  37. Mamta
    January 23, 2014

    Amazing work. Really liked the way photographs are captured.

  38. Rajkumar Oberoi
    January 23, 2014

    After a very long interval of time I have seen hunting big things with x ray photo technology
    , artist needs my personal pat in absentia.

  39. edd
    January 23, 2014

    Awesome footage can we have more please.

  40. Ali
    January 22, 2014

    Love it! Great art and educational too!

  41. Jose Miguel Perez Amaya
    January 22, 2014

    Porfavor es muy interesante podrian traducirla al espanol??????? Gracias

  42. Ee Haagwood
    January 22, 2014

    Worked in x-ray for 30 years. I do hope you are not doing this willy-nilly and harming people. Each and every film I made was a work of art.

  43. Jesús Rodriguez
    January 22, 2014

    Amazing work..

  44. martha chavez
    January 22, 2014

    de verdad son maravillosas, es como ver dentro de las cosas y darte cuenta de lo increibles q son

  45. arnrester@gmail.com
    January 22, 2014

    wow! super amazing!

  46. Mihaela
    January 22, 2014

    Bravo! Really nice idea and opportunity! 🙂

  47. bryan dellbridge
    January 22, 2014

    exciting works of art im truly impressed and can see this taking off in a big way if it hasnt already .. thanks i enloyed looking

  48. pamela
    January 22, 2014

    certainly sheds an extra dimensional view on everything, terrific

  49. Mel
    January 22, 2014

    This puts a spin on the ordinary.

  50. Zachary
    January 22, 2014

    Truly amazing…

  51. mangale kabbudula
    January 22, 2014

    all awesome staff

  52. Gabriel Vaca
    January 22, 2014

    Un lujo poder admirar estas obras de arte y sobre todo la paciencia para tan dedicado trabajo…. felicitaciones

  53. William Kidston
    January 22, 2014


  54. Jørgen Fogstrup
    January 22, 2014

    That elephant’s skull . . . briliant!

  55. Sanat Kumar Kar
    January 22, 2014

    creative art thru x-ray…wonderful

  56. Sashi
    January 22, 2014

    Excellent work

  57. Eliza
    January 22, 2014

    Lovely exhibition! Clever one!! Loved it!

  58. Felbert Edrada
    January 22, 2014


  59. vic
    January 21, 2014

    as always! excelent work!

  60. sheryl
    January 21, 2014

    I want to see more of your works, its absolutely undescribable

  61. Ruth Morgan
    January 21, 2014

    Birth would be amazing to see! Beautiful work!

  62. Suman Jyotish
    January 21, 2014

    Wow… Great artist… Jeanne is wonderfull creature n well tallented human…

  63. david
    January 21, 2014

    Muy excelente trabajo muy interesante gracias por la oportunidad de apreciarlo

  64. saba karomi
    January 21, 2014

    Brilliant! I would love to see X-ray of love-making.

  65. said musa
    January 21, 2014

    Very nice I liked

  66. Suman
    January 21, 2014

    Excellent work… Super Creative..loved it..KEEP IT UP

  67. Neelesh Kamath
    January 21, 2014

    Picturesque work.It would be great to add more things like a Ladies Handbag, a Gents wallet, a teenagers pocket, a snake ready to attack, or just two different species like a human and a dog, just some more ideas …

  68. Jes Hamilton
    January 21, 2014

    Great interview by Jeanne and love the artist

  69. srimanta ray
    January 21, 2014

    Excellent interview by the Author…. Great concept….Love the Creativity…..Excellent…. Learn fro it…Thank you Jeanne and Hugh and NG….Regards… :)Sri

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