It was pitch dark in the photographer’s studio, and the shoot was officially over. The subject, Maria Oquendo, MD, PhD, had returned to work. Usually, as the magazine editor, if I go to a photo shoot, I arrive early to see the space and the setting, and sometimes to stand in as the subject to help our photographer and art director make decisions about lighting. But this time was different. For one thing, the lighting decision was obvious, yet radically unusual: complete darkness. And this time, I stayed late and made my own mark on a couple of real photos, not just the preliminary test shots.
Waving a pen light in the darkness while photographer Peggy Peterson shot a 15-second exposure, I drew a series of curly “C” shapes with tails—backwards question marks. You can see them (from the photographer’s vantage point, facing the right way) as part of the composite image in the middle of the story about Oquendo and her work. The technique is called “painting with light,” and it produces an image that shows every bit of illumination, every movement of the light, during the long exposure when the camera’s aperture is held open. It is a kind of miniature retrospective, or summation, of those 15 seconds—the whole sequence of motion collapsed into a single still frame.
The technique was something our designer and art director, Graham Perry, chose to use for our profile of Oquendo, Penn Medicine’s chair of Psychiatry, because it works as a symbolic way of displaying how her research on suicide brings light to the darkest corners of the human psyche. The method itself in action, though, represents other aspects of Oquendo’s work, and of the stories in other pages of this issue.
When you paint with light, you have to have a vision for what you’re creating, some idea of the final picture. Yet that picture only emerges at the end of a span of work; it’s not truly visible while you’re creating it. You create in darkness, then see the picture of your light.
That description could fairly describe most research endeavors—and Penn Medicine’s uterus transplant trial, perhaps more than most. Led by Paige Porrett, MD, PhD, and Kate O’Neill, MD, MTR, with a broad, multidisciplinary team of co-investigators, the trial featured in our story is not only a remarkably sophisticated and new way of helping women with a rare form of infertility. It’s also a way of holding light up to the darkness of the great unknowns of human pregnancy—questions about the immunology of pregnancy, of the root causes of common complications, and much more, that can’t readily be studied in human subjects under typical circumstances.
Like a “painting with light” photo, our cover story is a snapshot of the actions of a span of time—in this case, 25 years. A quarter century ago, leaders at Penn Medicine set out to establish the University of Pennsylvania Health System as one of the nation’s first fully integrated academic health centers, and over the years the health system emerged through troubled times and grew to thrive as one of the preeminent academic medical centers in the world. There was a vision, an enormous amount of challenging work during the long exposure before the picture was completed—and now tens of thousands of patients, researchers worldwide, and generations of physicians trained here, can see the result.
Painting with light is a neat little photographic technique. It makes a pretty picture. But it’s also a lesson, and a reminder that even if you might not see the progress of your work as you’re making it—you’re making it still. Picture what you want to create. Hold up your light in the darkness. Draw your question. Create the picture you envisioned. Make something great. And enjoy the issue.
More About the Images in This Issue
Has Penn Medicine’s recent growth left you wondering about new and unfamiliar buildings in the illustrations for this issue’s cover story? The following key can help orient you to what is shown in those images. And these buildings are just a sampling of the many elements of Penn Medicine’s growing footprint!
Motherhood and children’s artwork formed the inspiration for the visual elements in this story. In planning for this story, we initially met with principal investigators Paige Porrett and Kate O’Neill in Porrett’s office—where the walls were plastered with artwork by Porrett’s daughter. When, in the course of our wide-ranging discussion, both project leaders reflected on the fact that their own experiences of becoming mothers had influenced their thinking about uterus transplantation, that visual element seemed all the more important. You can see the artwork in the portrait photo of Porrett and O’Neill within the story. Designer Graham Perry developed additional illustrations in a style that evokes art made with colorful construction paper.
We are indebted to Linton Whitaker, MD, for collecting a variety of images of Song for a talk he delivered at a plastic surgery conference in China last year. In addition, good old shoe-leather research took us to the Penn Dental Library, where Graham retrieved and photographed copies of Song’s beautifully illustrated thesis. Last, Song’s widow, Chen Nanping, was kind enough to photograph pages from his handwritten memoir, to complete the visual portrayal of his life’s story.