Magnetic ‘Dark Matter’ Photo Series Looks Like CGI, But Isn’t

Magnets and metallic grains creating an blocky structure with a vivid blue background

In an artful blending of science and photography, Zac Henderson’s abstract photo series Dark Matter III features mixed textures, vibrant colors, and intriguing angles.

Reminiscent of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and inspired by particle physics, the photographer’s images not only aim to playfully trick the eye but kindle the imagination.

Magnets and metallic grains creating an unknown structure with a pink and light blue background

Magnets and metallic grains creating a boxy structure with a dark orange and a light blue background

“I set out to create an abstract representation of something that, by definition, is impossible to photograph: dark matter, a theoretical form of matter which doesn’t interact with the visible spectrum and can’t be directly detected, yet is responsible for keeping galaxies, like our own Milky Way, glued together with its gravity. Now in its third iteration, Dark Matter is beginning to transcend its original purpose,” Henderson says.

Born at the peak of a creative drought for the photographer, the idea for the Dark Matter series emerged when Henderson chose to focus on passions outside of the field. Hoping to merge two interests, and spark inspiration, Henderson explored his feelings of awe of the natural world and science.

Magnets and metallic grains in blood orange and teal lighting

“I started reading and learning about topics that I didn’t understand at all, but found compelling. I think I became addicted to the awe and wonder that came from considering strange, yet fundamental aspects of nature. I wanted to try and create something that drew a connection between photography and that marvel of the universe.” Anderson says speaking to PetaPixel.

Magnets and metallic grains creating a structure with teal and red highlights and a neon blue background

“I chose to focus on dark matter which is theorized to keep galaxies glued together due to its gravity yet itself is completely invisible to us. An invisible form of matter allows for a wide interpretation, but magnetism is an invisible force that has visible effects so that seemed like a good place to start.”

Utilizing magnets and metallic grains, he sculpts the materials into a crystallized display of fascinating structures, set with complementary fluorescent-like lighting. Henderson’s shots are captured in a small home studio in a process that has proven to be just as intriguing as the finished works themselves as illustrated in the video below.

“Magnets are suspended on fishing lines, and then iron grains are introduced to the magnetic field. Sometimes I’ll make sketches of what I want the structures to roughly resemble. Other times I’ll manipulate the magnets and grains until I find a shape that is interesting and then push it further. With some intention and patience the sculptures can start to take on some really interesting properties,” he explains.

After sculptures are completed, they are lit and dozens of shots are taken in varying focal points, which are then layered into a single composite.

Magnets and metallic grains creating a twisted structure  with a vivid dark orange and orange background

Magnets and metallic grains creating a vivid cave like structure with teal highlights and a neon Pink background, dark teal shadows in the center of the structure

“Final retouching is done in Photoshop, including removing the fishing line and any other small fibers that find their way onto the structures. Aside from stacking and light retouching, the post-production process is minimal,” he adds.

This method gives each composition its own distinctive space cyberpunk-like aesthetic while emphasizing its unique texture and details. Viewers are left fluctuating between an abundance of visual intrigue, and being rewarded with subtlety and close inspection.

Magnets and metallic grains creating and  framing with a light green background with teal portions in the upper left corner

Magnets and metallic grains creating an structure with a neon pink background, with a little green in the corner

Henderson has delighted in the fact that in this most recent iteration of the series, the structures continue to evolve into new shapes.

“Though the inspiration hasn’t changed, the forms that I’m coercing the grains into now have begun to take on aspects of various imagined objects. Sometimes I see the sculptures as microscopic life holding themselves together through magnetism in the microgravity of space. Other times their ambiguous scale can resemble huge alien structures suspended in nebulas. I enjoy finding new ways to view them and letting that roughly inform the structure’s shape.”

Magnets and metallic grains in orange and teal lighting

Henderson also sought to have color be a primary element in this latest shoot, which proved to be challenging given his minimalistic approach in his studio space,

“I don’t own lots of studio equipment, so I made do with what I had and experimented with some color-changing bulbs. They turned out to be really effective, though not particularly bright. For this reason, the exposures were quite long, especially for a studio setting. Each exposure would take between 20 and 40 seconds depending on the color and intensity of the lights. On top of that, the images are focus stacked with 30-40 frames, so each final piece would require up to just over 25 minutes of exposure time altogether,” Anderson says.

Magnets and metallic grains creating an structure with a blue and peach background

Magnets and metallic grains collecting over a grey boxy structure with a dark grey shadow towards the bottom

As for the equipment that he does use, the photographer expresses his affinity for tools that deliver texture and high resolution with enthusiasm.

“I am a sucker for texture, and these magnetic sculptures are extraordinarily textured, so it’s important for me to render that texture with as much fidelity and resolution as possible. For that reason the series is captured with a Phase One XF IQ4 150 MP medium format camera […] along with a Schneider Kreuznach 120mm LS BR f/4 macro lens. I tether to Capture One and use magnified live view on MacBook Pro to make fine adjustments from the camera’s perspective.”

Magnets and metallic grains Zac Henderson Dark Matter 3: Magnets and metallic grains creating a vivid tower like structure with bright red on one side and s tiny lime green on the other. with a dark yellow background

Through the Dark Matter series, Henderson has found that the project continues to prompt more questions than answers and ‘plucks at the strings of our shared insatiable curiosities.

“To me, a good photo elicits a question or sparks curiosity while presenting an interesting or unique aesthetic. It’s a hard thing to describe and is easier to know it when you see it. It doesn’t have to tell a story, but it should create a desire for more, be it more images or information […] I’m not a scientist, but if I can start conversations or ignite someone’s curiosity in science then I feel like I’ve contributed, even in a microscopic way, to that very human project of exploring the wonderful and strange situation we find ourselves in.”

Magnets and metallic grains creating a coral reef like structure with electric blue and red highlights and a orange background

Magnets and metallic grains creating an structure with a yellow and lime green background

Despite the few unique emails, feedback on Henderson’s work has been positive,

“I’m very grateful for that. I did receive a 1,998-word (no joke) email trying to convince me that dark matter doesn’t exist which I got a chuckle out of, though not because the writer rejects the existence of dark matter since it is still technically unproven. Dark matter is thought of by many to be the best explanation we have for what we observe in the universe, but whether or not it exists as we think of it is still a question. If the work makes any conversation happen, especially about science, I consider it successful.”

Magnets and metallic grains creating an structure with a dark orange pink background

For more from Henderson, make sure to visit his website and Instagram

Image credits: Zac Henderson