Thomas B. Kinraide was an electrical engineer first and only secondly an artist.
But there's no doubt that the pioneering photographs the Massachusetts inventor made in the 1890s of the high-frequency electrical currents used to generate X-rays have unusual merit.
Like the best botanical prints, they reach beyond the mere documentation of mass and form to capture something more akin to character or spirit.
The X-ray images of Massachusetts artist Diane Covert transcend their sources, too, transforming a series of radiographs detailing the wounds of terrorist bombing victims into something much more than objective medical records of how explosives and shrapnel can tear through flesh, blood and bone.
Like portraits depicting their subjects in the nude, they're intimate and personal — and they bring searing new meaning to the idea of being vulnerable.
"You don't have to have a medical background to respond to these images," says Lita Tirak, curator of an ambitious, revealing and sometime wincing exhibit at Linda Matney Gallery in Williamsburg.
"They're some of the most provocative things I've seen in X-ray art."
Made up of three dozen often riveting images, "X-RA*DI*ANCE: Four Artists Who Explore the Technology of X-Rays" became a labor of love for Tirak, a College of William and Mary doctoral candidate who specializes in the history of the X-ray in America.
It also marks a landmark effort for gallery owner Lee Matney, who combined with Tirak to raise more than $5,000 from mostly small pockets to help pay for what is far from an ordinary exhibit.
Discovered in a secret network of tunnels that had been sealed for nearly a century, Kinraide's pioneering images are getting their first public viewing since that time, courtesy of Florida medical technology historian Jeff Behary, who found them in 2005 deep beneath the wealthy inventor's mansion.
Reprinted from the original glass negatives, they capture the otherwise unseen inner structure of high-frequency electricity in a way that's revealing and beautiful, depicting nebulous yet powerful beams that unfold in space as if they were exotic flowers or otherworldly sea creatures.
"What I find most interesting is how Kinraide blended science and art," Tirak says.
"He was not the only one doing this sort of thing. But he was the only doing it with such aesthetic intent and ability. He was actually experimenting to see how beautiful they could be."
So advanced were Kinraide's tests that Behary — an acknowledged expert in the field — has been unable to reproduce them despite using a carefully refurbished example of the patented "Kinraide Coil."
What he has made, however, are cosmic-looking "spark prints" that recall the fiery power of solar flares, comets and eclipses. In "The Phantom's Eye," he rivals Kinraide himself, creating a mysterious and visually evocative glimpse into the same elusive region where energy and mass pass from being separate entities into being one.
Drawn from a series called "Inside Terrorism: The X-Ray Project," Covert's images can be bewildering, too, using shadowy radiographs, composite sets and multiples to explore the impact of terrorist suicide bombings on their victims.
Through strangely anonymous without their skin, hair and clothing, the figures are remarkably intimate and compelling at the same time, conjuring up the hapless fate of Everyman or Everywoman caught in the hail of nuts, bolts, nails and other small metal objects routinely used to make suicide bombings more deadly.
Among the most moving images is "The Family," a large composite radiograph showing the ghostly, shrapnel-ridden figures of a man, woman and young girl caught in an attack. "Nail in Neck," "Smashed Arm and Hand with Shrapnel" and "Hands Blown Off" show only parts of figures but are unforgettably horrific.
Don't miss the smart, often humorous and always provocative works of London-based artist Nick Veasey, whose X-ray scans of objects as big as buses and planes have attracted international attention.
Here he sticks to such modestly sized subjects as a bowler hat, camera and garbage bin.
But the sense of revelation and wonder as you peer past the surfaces of things into the unseen is just as compelling.
Erickson can be reached at email@example.com and 757-247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment
Want to go?
"X-RA*DI*ANCE: Four Artists Who Explore the Technology of X-Rays"
Where: Linda Matney Gallery, 5435 Richmond Road, Williamsburg
When: Through April 20.
Also scheduled: A closing reception featuring a 3 p.m. talk by artist Diane Covert and Peninsula orthopedist physician Daniel Cavazos, 2-5 p.m. April 20.
Info: 757-675-6627; http://www.lindamatneygallery.com
Online: Go to dailypress.com/xrayart to see a gallery of images from the show.