The fascinating intersection between science and art is explored in colorful depth in Spencer Lowell’s photographs. These two realms are key to his work. If you want conclusive proof, look no further than his knuckles: spelled out across his right hand are the letters CMYK, and on the left, E = mc2. Tattooed amino acids extend up one forearm, and the other is a dense canvas of delicate white constellations on top of solid black ink. He is a man who wears his passions on his sleeve, and whose aesthetic vision emerges out of symmetrical, clean images of complex subjects.
Lowell’s work has appeared in the pages of Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, Politico, Popular Science, TIME and WIRED. Our initial interview date was pushed back because he received a last-minute assignment from the New York Times Magazine to fly to Kaua‘i and hike through an unmarked rainforest in pursuit of a critically endangered bird called an ‘Akikiki.
When we finally meet, it’s in his temporary small office space in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, down the block from Shepard Fairey’s studio and a thriving coffeehouse. The walls are covered with rows of vivid color prints as he is currently editing down his prodigious body of work into a curated book. He lives nearby with his wife and two young sons, where he is converting the garage into a home studio.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Lowell has developed his career over the last decade, from a somewhat unfocused start. He got his first job at age twelve, when his father put him to work at his home security business. By sixteen, he had cycled through retail, corporate and food jobs, and knew he didn’t want to work within any of those industries.
“As far back as I can remember, I was always taking things apart. I wanted to understand how things worked from the inside out. I didn’t know it as it was happening, but in retrospect, that is what a lot of my work is about,” says Lowell. “When I was a kid, it was a telephone or a TV remote or the VCR. Unfortunately for my parents, I would rarely put anything back together. Luckily, you don’t have to put things back together to understand how they work.
“I grew up in the ’80s, so the Space Shuttle program was very prevalent in my upbringing. I even went to a bootleg space camp called AstroCamp—not the one at Kennedy Space Center that I wanted to go to,” he says.
Despite his fascination with science, it never occurred to Lowell to pursue it through academics. His career trajectory began with a teen job in a one-hour photo lab. Working in the lab whet his appetite to learn more about what proved to be a perfect fit for a science-minded kid—photography.
After a year at the photo lab, he moved up to Studio City Camera Exchange. “It was a magical place; I still have dreams about being there,” he says. “[It was] started by a Swiss immigrant. Everyone who worked there was passionate about photography. I got the job in order to get more money; but there, I was exposed to actual photography. That’s where I got the bug for it. I didn’t know it at the time, but that void that lies between science and art kind of fits photography perfectly because it’s a creative and a technical process. Once that happened, when I was seventeen, it was obvious that photography was what I was supposed to be doing.”
At the same time, his sister was modeling a lot, and Lowell started getting assignments to photograph models on the weekends. Then he got hired at the A&I film lab in Hollywood, during a time when everyone was still shooting film; he worked his way up at that company, becoming the manager of its Santa Monica lab at age 21.
Although his early lab jobs sparked his interest in photography, he learned to refine and hone his vision at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, where printer Anthony Zepeda urged him to photograph the things he liked. That inspired him to do something with the universe. He downloaded images of nebulae from the Hubble Space Telescope and made platinum/palladium prints. He equated the creation of art with the creation of matter and printed them as negatives.
ArtCenter alumnus Dan Goods, the “visual strategist” for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), fortuitously attended Lowell’s graduate show. In addition to his own photographs, Lowell included the platinum/palladium nebula prints, which resonated with Goods. They had a great conversation about art and science, and Lowell was invited to a tour of JPL. Not long after that, he was offered a job. “I spent my first few months out of college photographing labs, hardware and scientists up at JPL,” he explains.
While working there, he also began to photograph its build-out of the Mars rover Curiosity for a personal series, following the project all the way to its dramatic launch. Discover, TIME and WIRED picked up these images, jump-starting his freelance career.
These days, the majority of Lowell’s assignments take him out of Los Angeles. “Seventy-five percent is flying to some random place with relatively obscure information about the subject and putting something together,” he says.
Ryan Mellody, creative director for the IBM brand in New York City, says, “Spencer is among our list of go-to photographers because, first, he is truly passionate about technology and how mankind impacts the world—that shows through his body of work and also bubbles up through any conversation you have with him. Second, he consistently captures a crisp and scientific view of the world at work. Technically, that’s achieved through a mastery of composition, alignment, focus depth and value structures, but there is also his subjective eye, which sees and responds to such frames.”
Lowell’s work is reminiscent of the collaborative duo Bernd and Hilla Becher, German conceptual artists and photographers who frequently organized their work in grids. It is industrial in nature yet somehow poetic. “Putting things into a grid the way they did and basically sterilizing the subject matter allows the viewer to look at the imagery without thinking about the photographer, which is something I always strive to do with my own work,” he says. “I don’t want people to think about me when they’re looking at the picture; I want them to think about what’s in the picture. My job as a photographer is to lay out the subject matter as clearly and legibly as possible.”
His photographic influences skew to the classical. “Mitch Epstein has always been one of my favorites; obviously also Andreas Gursky. I’ve always gravitated more toward the German photographers—Thomas Demand, Thomas Struth— because of the formal qualities of their image making,” Lowell says. “My all-time favorite photographer is Irving Penn. For me, the hardest question to answer is when people ask what kind of photographer I am. I like that it’s hard to answer. That’s something I admired about Penn and most of my favorite photographers. I strive to have an aesthetic that can be applied to many different types of subjects; it allows me to not get bored. With Penn, he could be shooting a tribe in the Amazon or a vegetable—it’s about having a vision and applying that vision.”
Like Penn, Lowell’s also garnered a reputation for versatility. “Consistency and scale is necessary for a large company like ours,” says Mellody. “I can direct any of our organizations or agencies to him and know they’ll get a great result, whether that’s him and an assistant shooting a single portrait or a crew of 20 people shooting over a week’s time.”
Lowell is always open to a challenge, like when he recently documented the ruins of Fukushima for WIRED (and was prompted to get his will and trust together). “He is the perfect photographer to send to remote, environmentally challenging locations because he is able to quickly suss up the situation and adapt to any environment, especially when it comes to nature- and science-related subjects,” says Amy Kellner, photo editor at the New York Times Magazine. “He learned scuba diving for one of our assignments even though he said he had a fear of being underwater. And then he just went ahead and did it and ended up taking amazing underwater photos. He is exceptionally versatile—he can deliver great portraits, documentary shots and still lifes with equal skill.”
“One of my favorite Spencer stories is from when we sent him to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in a remote Arctic archipelago between Norway and the North Pole,” Kellner says. “The first night he went to shoot the vault, he was chased by a polar bear. It didn’t stop him though. He went right back the next night.”
Whether he is photographing a Mars rover, the literal ends of the earth or one of the last northern white rhinoceroses, Lowell applies the same aesthetic vision, memorializing each subject for now and for the future. “When I look at my work as a whole, I almost feel like an anthropologist,” he says. “Except instead of studying past civilizations, I’m just studying our civilization.” ca