• 11.17.15

    Craig Ward’s Infectious Love for New York City

    Earlier this year, Craig Ward was riding the subway and geeking out over some nerdy science blog (as per his description). He was reading about a photograph by Tasha Sturm who had asked her 8-year-old son to press his hand into a petri dish. After cultivating it for some time, she photographed the bacteria that grew in the dish and it was arresting, if not totally alarming. “It’s a very striking image of all the different kinds of bacteria he had,” says Craig. “I was on the subway when I saw that image and I remembered that urban myth that when you hold onto the handrail it’s like you’re shaking hands with a hundred people at the same time.” Suddenly, Craig wondered what all those subway bacteria would look like, and if each train would have its own microscopic family. With the same limited groups of people riding each line, they were bound to have slightly different populations of bacteria and other microscopic organisms that would look slightly different. Craig, whose mission has been to tell full stories using typography, had a new project cultivating in his mind. He set out to create the Subvisual Subway Series, a collection of petri dishes that each contained the blooming bacteria of each New York City subway line. 

    To get the results that he wanted, Craig literally developed a new way of collecting the organisms. After cutting sponges into the typeface that he chose, he sterilized them, dampened them with sterile water, and then swabbed each of the subway lines. The he stamped them into petri dishes and allowed them to grow. They bloomed almost overnight. “I was just psyched that it worked,” Craig says. “I thought it was such an interesting idea but I wasn’t sure that I was going to get anything out of it. I did the L train first and it actually turned out to be one of my favorites. It’s one of the more diverse and colorful of the pieces. I’m just really glad that it worked, honestly.” It did work. Each line shows its own collection of different infectors, offering different shapes, colors, and geometries. The populations are clearly different from subway to subway.

    The project started with that visual inspiration on the subway but the interest started to go a little deeper. “I just wanted to see what it looked like,” says Craig. “But once I started showing it around everyone wanted to know what I’d actually managed to collect on there.” Working with New York Magazine and a bacteriologist in Colorado, Craig got a handful of the organisms identified. Many of them are molds and yeasts, but there was also the litany of terrifying bacteria you’re afraid of: E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Serratia marcescens (which causes a lot of infections inside hospitals), and many more that couldn’t be immediately identified.

    Even though Craig started from a visual curiosity, there is the opportunity to look at the Subvisual Subway Series as being something deeper, seeing at it as a metaphor for life in New York. “The more I’ve looked at them the more they’ve felt like a really nice analogy for the city,” Craig says. “You look at the subway and it’s all just different shapes and sizes and colors of people and you look at it at a microscopic level and it’s all just different shapes and sizes and colors of bacterial colonies. It’s a nice kind of portrait of the city on a very small scale.” 

    Prints of the Subvisual Subway Series, as singles and in groups, are available for pre-order now on his site, Words Are Pictures.

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