Science Discovers Breathtaking Seaweed Prints Revealing the Enchanting World Underwater

When Oriana Poindexter made her move to San Diego back in 2013, she found herself faced with a peculiar challenge – the bountiful kelp forests along the coast often hindered her peaceful longboard rides. As her trailing leash became entangled in the thick seaweed beneath the waves, she realized that the kelp forest held more than just inconvenience. It would soon become the driving force behind her passions and career.

Originally from Laguna Beach, Poindexter had already earned her undergraduate degree in visual arts from Princeton University and had a keen eye for capturing artistic subjects with her camera. While studying at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2014, she witnessed the emergence of a marine heat wave known as “the blob” along the West Coast. Though this warm weather system brought negative consequences, it also presented pleasant temperatures for diving into the deep waters. Poindexter, a strong swimmer, began free diving in the kelp forest every day with her Nikonos camera in hand. The kelp forest became her muse, and the diverse array of species that inhabited the space became her constant companions. Through her stunning photography, Poindexter documented the shifts in ecosystems that she observed in the depths.

In 2018, Poindexter attended a cyanotype workshop where she learned to process her digital negatives using a different technique. Cyanotype printing, one of the oldest forms of chemical processes for film development, produces cyan-blue prints using a light-sensitive solution. Poindexter decided to experiment with her kelp forest images using this method. However, when she processed the film into a cyanotype print, she discovered that the details of the forest, which had captivated her underwater, were lost. The trees seemed minuscule and insignificant on the small cyanotype paper. But after six months, Poindexter had an epiphany – her prints didn’t have to be small. She could expose the algae directly on large sheets of paper, capturing the full scale and intricacies of the kelp forest.

Poindexter began collecting kelp during her morning dives and laying the strands onto paper to create life-size cyanotypes. These art pieces became quintessential records of the hidden forests beneath the ocean’s surface. With the intricate textures of the seaweeds now visible in great detail and at full scale, Poindexter’s artwork conveyed the true essence of the kelp forest.

In 2021, after working as a fisheries economics analyst for over five years, Poindexter decided to leave her job and dedicate herself fully to her art. Although the numbers-oriented profession had provided a compatible balance to her artistic pursuits, her desire for creative expression grew stronger over time. Since then, she has collected various kelp species from around the world and hosted art shows to share the wonders of these forests with others.

We recently caught up with Poindexter in San Diego to discuss her work and motivations while joining her on a dive. She explained how creating cyanotypes resonates with her more than any other art form. The process allows her to have a physical and tangible experience of finding something in nature and transforming it into something beautiful. By noting the time and place of each kelp specimen, she creates a record of the ever-changing environment. The cyanotypes capture details that cannot be fully represented in a photograph, like the hair-like extensions and blade details, which are often lost in downsized images.

Poindexter also shared her process for cyanotype printing. Instead of using pre-made cyanotype paper, she treats her own paper with a light-sensitive emulsion made from two iron salts. She paints the emulsion onto the paper in subdued light and lets it dry. The following morning, she collects kelp during her dive and arranges it on the dried paper before exposing it to direct sunlight. After a short exposure time, she rinses the print in water, either freshwater or saltwater. Poindexter even takes prepped paper on her travels to make prints right on the beach, allowing her to create records without disturbing the ecosystem.

The scientific aspects of Poindexter’s art form, involving chemistry, temperature, and recordkeeping, also intrigue her. She recognizes the combination of science and serendipity as a source of beauty in her work. While she can prepare the paper and set the conditions, the natural elements still play a role in the final outcome. Poindexter often takes the piece of kelp used for the print and creates a toning bath, similar to making tea, which alters the colors and records another characteristic of the algae. By doing so, she ensures that she honors the kelp’s life, as it will no longer be able to grow.

When asked about her motivation for this work, Poindexter explained that it stemmed from her desire to document and create a comprehensive record of the places she explores. She finds inspiration in the history of women scientists who, in the past, had the opportunity to study botany as an acceptable scientific pursuit. One example is Anna Atkins, who made cyanotypes of seaweed in the 1800s. Poindexter sees her own work as a continuation of this tradition, connecting the past to the present and celebrating the exploration of the natural world.

Through her art, Oriana Poindexter invites others to experience the wonders of the kelp forests and encourages a deeper appreciation for our delicate ecosystems. Her unique cyanotype prints capture the essence of these underwater realms, allowing us to see and understand them in ways that traditional photography cannot. By combining her passion for art with her love for the ocean, Poindexter has created a truly remarkable body of work.



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