Microscopic Art

David Scharf’s Photographs Of A Tiny World

Amy Dalness
4 min read
B. (David Scharf)
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There are creatures living on this page. You can’t see them, but they are there. Infinitesimal organisms spread from soil to animal to person to paper and back to a person. Billions of them, right here on these words, ready for their close up.

Science photographer David Scharf studied physics and photography at Monmouth University in New Jersey. After working on classified missile and torpedo systems and a few other high-tech projects, he took his knowledge of the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and its imaging abilities and became self-employed as a photographer of very tiny things—like the micro-organisms on this newspaper print.

Scharf uses magnification and highly complex electron digital photography to capture the likeness of creatures and things most know exist but have never seen. Bacteria, pollen, the surface of a kidney stone, the feelers of a bed bug, things hypochondriacs have daymares about are carefully glued to platform slides, put under Scharf’s lenses and enlarged to a scale we humans can (sort of) comprehend. To the curious among us, the images give detailed answers to questions we couldn’t have thought to ask, and even the squeamish will be dazzled by the detail and multidimensional effect of Scharf’s tricolor-synthesizing technique. The technological jargon for the system Scharf invented to add color to the originally black-and-white SEM images is very scientific, but the results are simple: Wow.

Scientific process aside, Scharf’s photographs are deep, complex fine art versions of Magic Eye posters with no need to go cross-eyed. He’s taken already captivating images of the real micro-world and made them more dynamic by adding colors associated with a world of fantasy. Sharp pinks, rich reds and subtle greens add intensity to his detailed photos, making them pop off the page as if the viewer were wearing 3-D glasses.

Scharf brings the untouchable micro world into the unforgiving macro world in an approachable and appealing way. Most recently,
National Geographic ‘s July 2007 cover depicted the large eyes and long, sword-like mouth of the Anopheles mosquito and the outline of a word: malaria. The feature story, written by Michael Finkel, tells the saga of the nearly half-billion people who will be afflicted with malaria this year by the Anopheles mosquito and world efforts to stop this deadly parasite. Pictures of the offending insect, taken by Scharf, show the closest thing to a face anyone can put to this global health threat.

Then there’s the scale to think about. A photo featuring what looks like a large crab-like insect on the sage-colored surface of a desolate planet is really an image of a mite taking a ride on a honey bee. If a print were displayed in an 8- by 10-inch format, the bee would be the size of a house, says Scharf. Seeing a creature so small is incredible enough, but to see it in such detail with a sexy color scheme is enough to give someone vertigo. Who needs sci-fi when there’s reality? Honestly.

What Is That? Photo Quiz

B. David Scharf
A. David Scharf
C. David Scharf
D. David Scharf
Test your scientific skills and identify the subject in David Scharf’s photographs!

Gallery Review


A) Ascorbic acid crystals

B) Compound eye of a diamondback moth

C) Pollen mixture (allergens—ragweed, bermuda grass, black oak, plantain and red maple)

D) Polygonum pollen grain


David Scharf


David Scharf


David Scharf

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