Don Dudenbostel’s photos take an inside look

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by MiChelle Jones

They are exquisite and ethereal, these X-ray images of flowers. Some are simple, a single bloom, while one image is a frame-filling composition of several kinds of flowers. All blend art and science.

The translucent botanicals, the work of Don Dudenbostel, are on view at The Arts Companythrough May 30.

Dudenbostel’s documentary images of Appalachia and collodion prints will also be exhibited.

“You learn a lot about photography; you don’t just take it for granted,” gallery owner Anne Brown said of the work.

Started as teen

Dudenbostel first experimented with X-ray images as a teenager when he created images using high voltage and a 1920s radio tube to expose film.

“Of course, you have to be careful when you’re working with X-rays — they can be lethal,” Dudenbostel said nonchalantly from his Knoxville home. “My parents never knew what to expect. They thought I was going to blow the house up or electrocute the neighbor’s dog.”

Dudenbostel wasn’t just making it up as he went along — he had a General Electric X-ray engineer as a mentor, a man who provided guidance and also lots of equipment he’d collected from medical and dental offices.

Dudenbostel used scrap parts to construct his own X-ray machine and began imaging flowers after the engineer gave him a company magazine with a floral X-ray on the cover.

Later he concentrated on documentary and news images as the chief photographer for the University of Tennessee’s Daily Beacon. It was during this time Dudenbostel caught the attention of former Tennessean chief photographer Jack Corn.

“He took me under his wing. I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors who were of that quality,” Dudenbostel said.

Dudenbostel’s links to accomplished photographers are indeed impressive: He studied with Ansel Adams and later with Kim Weston in the house and darkroom where his father and grandfather, Edward and Brett Weston, worked. He recalls chatting with the latter Weston and a marathon visit to then 92-year-old Imogen Cunningham.

Reviving old method

Part of Dudenbostel’s Arts Company show focuses on collodion prints, a method of image processing dating to the mid-1850s. He shoots close-ups of antique cornets, tubas and other instruments using lenses from the late 1880s mounted onto a 50-year-old camera.

He thus achieves small, murky results similar to those of early photographers — and also uses the same toxic chemicals. “It requires a bit of knowledge of chemistry,” Dudenbostel said. With his degrees in chemistry and microbiology, it’s no problem.

The X-ray botanicals also require a grasp of science, physics in particular.

Dudenbostel got back into X-ray images more than a decade ago at the suggestion of his wife, painter Cynthia Tollefsrud, whose work is also on view at the gallery this month. (Painter Leonard Piha rounds out the gallery’s May show.)

Many of the flowers come from the five gardens on his property, though Dudenbostel said neither he nor Tollefsrud are particularly talented gardeners. Friends also bring flowers to him, things like cacti from the Sonoran desert or a night-blooming cereus.

“It’s a very exotic, large flower. It only opens once a year and produces just a few blossoms. You have to move quickly because it almost immediately starts closing again and dies,” Dudenbostel said.

Unfortunately, he has to cut the flowers and remove the blossoms to capture the images.

Appalachia series

In addition to a newer home-built machine, he uses a commercially manufactured one the size of an Easy-Bake oven. It weighs considerably more than the child’s oven due to the 500 pounds of lead inside.

Dudenbostel does all the composing on the film, sometimes consulting with Tollefsrud, then uses exposures ranging from around 7 seconds to an hour. He then scans the negatives, adjusts contrasts and levels and also deals with any blemishes captured on the flowers.

The X-ray botanicals are printed on poster-size paper and have a slight taupe tinge.

A sample of Dudenbostel’s series on Appalachia will also be on view at The Arts Company. Dudenbostel is leaving his nearly 100,000 documentary images to theEast Tennessee History Center, where they will compose a special collection to be used for educational and public use. About 100 of the images are also available as a touring museum show called “Vanishing Appalachia.”

If you go

What: Works by Leonard Piha, Cynthia Tollefsrud and Don Dudenbostel

Where: The Arts Company, 215 Fifth Ave. N.

When: through May 30

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Admission: free

Contact: 615-254-2040 or theartscompany.com