In focus with Idaho National Laboratory photographer Chris Morgan

July 12, 2022

By INL Media Relations

Idaho National Laboratory has been home to countless research innovations over the course of its 72-year history. While these advancements across nuclear energy, national security and renewable energy have been varied, many of them have shared a singular connection for the last 38 years: Having their stories documented by INL photographer Chris Morgan. 

Chris Morgan

“The goal is to get compelling images of our research and the work that we do here to best tell the story,” Morgan said, settling into his INL office and eyeing his next assignment. “Im a photojournalist and have always been a journalist at heart.” 

Photojournalism offers a different form of reporting back to the public. To be able to tell a story, frame a perspective, or find that detail hidden in plain sight, a photographer must have journalistic skills that require practice, patience and, for Morgan, a sense of curiosity. 

“Images are hugely important to the story of INL,” said Nicole Stricker, the science communications manager at INL. “Its very difficult to envision what we do. How do you illustrate grid security, cybersecurity? This is why Chriss work is critical. His photographs are the audience’s first entry point to the story.” 

Morgan has archived tens of thousands of INL images that have included facility groundbreakings, new technology and scientific discovery, and even the wildlife that biologists monitor on the high desert plains – like sage grouse leks. 

In his time at the lab, Morgan has shouldered the digital transition of his own department while focusing on what, and more importantly who, makes the national lab successful.  

“Some people are more into the camera gear, but none of that matters if you cant tell the story,” Morgan said. “Its about getting that ‘moment’ and finding the human element that goes just beyond the surface of what you’re looking at – an expression, a slight tilt of someones head, something that holds your attention on an image for just a second, but you know it’s just enough to draw you in.” 

Material analysis small
INL photographer Chris Morgan uses light gels and flashes to create compelling images such as this portrait illustrating floating optical cables. Morgan said he is often assigned to take photos in small laboratories that offer little light. Morgan used flashes and a blue gel to create a dynamic image.
TAP reactor
Talking with researchers on an assignment helps them relax around Morgan’s camera. In this image, he worked to incorporate the machinery into the portrait while using artificial flashes to create a more dramatic look. “I like to incorporate big, technical looking things into the photo so you get a sense of scale and complexity,” he said. “Then, I add a lot more drama and emphasize the image by using flashes.”
Atom Probe
Illustrating really small particles such as an atom sometimes requires using a really wide-angle lens to showcase the incredible research equipment used at INL. Here, Morgan photographs an “atom probe,” a piece of equipment used to look at atomic crystals. “I wanted to see this researcher’s whole world but also be as close to him as possible because the story is about the equipment being used and the technical process. It takes researchers years and years to learn how to use these instruments. If you ask this researcher what he does, he would tell you, but you would have no idea what that looks like. I love photographing the actual equipment,” Morgan said.

Morgan’s photographic story started at a photo printing “hut” in Pocatello while learning his f-stops on an Olympus OM-1 film camera. “I always wanted to be the next Ansel Adams and Edward Weston,” he said. “Its all about the ‘decisive moment,’ about finding a combination of composition and texture or the lines that lead you to the subject. Its simple compositions that work.” 

Morgan was formally trained at Idaho State University. After graduating, he started work as an INL intern. He’s stayed at the lab since, photographing both large and mundane moments since 1984.  

“Every day I walk in the door and its a different lab Im headed to or its a different technology that is being developed. I often wonder, did the job make me or did I make the job? I think its a little of both,” he said. 

Morgan’s work has required him to photograph everything from nuclear reactors to alternative energy sources to new leaders at the lab to vehicle batteries. Capturing the right image requires a certain level of understanding to tell the right story.  

“Because Chris has been at the lab for so long, he understands a lot of the science that goes on here, which is extremely important to the overall communication of the lab,” said Kristine Burnham, a graphic designer at INL who has worked with Morgan for decades. “His curiosity about science is what propels him as a professional.” 

ATRC small
This photo is from a series on the upgrades to the Advanced Test Reactor Critical Facility. “I wanted to show this overview of what it is like to be on top of the facility while illustrating the upgrades to the facility,” Morgan said. “This photo helps show the scale of the facility by using the person as a perspective.”
Bent Tree Norway
While traveling in Norway several years ago, Morgan was on a hike with his wife when they happened upon a stand of trees. He was captivated by the way these trees were bent together in a field. “I don’t know if it was the snow effect, but these were the coolest things. I thought I would highlight one in order to focus on that primal shape. It was a cool experience. Maybe it was very common in Norway, but I had never seen that before.”
Bison Tracks Yellowstone
Morgan is never really without his camera and enjoys finding the unique in nature. Here, he captured an image of bison hoof prints while walking along the boardwalk in Yellowstone National Park. “When you’re walking along the geyser basins, you see these amazing color palettes and you can’t miss those contrasts and competitive shapes. It’s just too beautiful not to shoot.”

This passion and curiosity are evident both in his professional life and personal hobbies. When Morgan isnt shooting at the lab, he’s often out looking for compelling landscapes while channeling his inner Ansel Adams. At INL, Morgan’s visually compelling work has a lasting impact. 

“He is in many ways our institutional memory. Even though the darkrooms are gone and social media gravitates toward video, there will always be a place for still photography,” Stricker added. “The photo is still worth a thousand words.”  

Morgan reflects jokingly, “If a photo is worth a thousand words, then I talk too much.”  


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About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted July 12, 2022

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