Lore Degenstein Art Gallery -- Susquehanna University
David Scharf: The Art of Color in Scanning Electron Microscope Photography
October 27, 2001 - December 2, 2001
When art and science interconnect, the effect is majestic bringing together unique concepts of each. Subject matter and technique may combine in a way that appeal to an audience both seeking information and considering the visual result. Images by David Scharf attest to the power of the aesthetic treatment of scientific data, recorded through the scanning electron microscope, processed by computer, and printed through high quality color processing, Scharf controls the subject viewed by the Macintosh computer as a signal from the electron microscope; he subjects the image to coloration from a system of his own invention; and he further presses the limit of the current state of technology printing the image on a color-calibrated large format printer that precisely reads his definition for intense, saturated color.
Scharf's subjects - a result of his many projects to provide investigators with microscopic views - range from insects, botanical subjects, and nano particles to higher magnification of even smaller bacteriological specimens and the micro world of medical science. The image of an immature corn flower (cover), for instance, demonstrates the anthropomorphic nature of vegetal life when seen at a closer level than the eye can behold. Color, visible as pigment only at a macro level, is a virtual creation of the photographer's technique, produced by his patented process of using separate RGB (red, green, blue) electron detectors affording an eerie "natural" appearance. This color enhances the three-dimensional quality of the image enabling the viewer to read hills and valleys as if they were visually accessible without the aid of his technology.
It is significant of Scharf's impeccable photographer's eye that his scientific images exude a kind of beauty usually reserved for paint on canvas or color photography. That these images could be subjected to the scrutiny of the art museum and its visitors, attests to the nature of his composition and resourceful selections from the less than visible world. Yet, science has found its way into the art museum for hundreds of years. Witness the magnificent drawings of Leonardo that explore the visual world with means now revered among the highest aesthetic traditions. At the brink of discovery Leonardo produced drawings that preserved an understanding of visual perception unknown before. The intention of these drawings was to record phenomena rather than to delight the senses. If however, the end result serves both goals, then the visual effect can be profound.
In the present day scientific photography similarly provides new information through a visual experience that aids discovery. Sophisticated instruments augment the camera's eye focusing upon distant as well as minute images. We can liken the electron microscope to a camera with the photographer in command of the way in which the material under scrutiny can be seen. David Scharf, using the scanning electron microscope (SEM) as his camera, manipulates the viewer's perception of objects too miniscule to see and too difficult to define under conventional scientific techniques.
Working for years with a tool that destroys its subject in order to observe it, Scharf manipulates the fatal vacuum tube that ordinarily snuffs out the life of its subject as it allows photographs to be made. The necessity to exclude oxygen from this large cylinder in order to facilitate the movement of electrons around the object under examination is part of the conventional operating procedure of the electron microscope. Normally the object desicates and shrivels in this environment. Scharf however, has developed a technique that keeps the integrity of the object in its original state. Working with his own electron microscope in his lab in Los Angeles, Scharf has defined a procedure that is revolutionary to the scientific world and has invented a technological process to color the object as he views it. He observes that on occasion, an insect under 70 seconds of this bombardment often can be released into his garden, still alive.
Known for over twenty-five years for his SEM pictures, Scharf's images are regularly published in science journals, popular magazines - Time, Nature, and Discovery, to name a few - and even in cinema form. His earliest experience with the latter appears in the 1982 movie, "Blade Runner," in which his SEM image of a snake is revealed as a mechanical device, thus aiding Harrison Ford to "zoom in" on his opponent. Scharf this year received an Emmy award for his contributions to an IMAX film in which he incorporated animation of his specimens to travel through the body's interior.
Beginning his career as an engineering student at Monmouth College, Scharf went to California and ran a vacuum physics lab for Burroughs Corporation. There he found the process of seeing the unseen tantalizing and sought ways to continue to use the SEM eventually in his own studio. Since an electron microscope occupies an entire room of electronic equipment required for its fascinating process, he was able to fund his equipment through numerous studies for hire. He currently maintains an image bank that can be accessed for commercial and scientific use at a premium, income for the photographer.
The exhibition at the Lore Degenstein Gallery shows 59 of David Scharf's current images in which he has used virtual coloration, printing them from high-resolution digital computer files on a large-format inkjet printer. The photographer uses cutting edge technology to explore the micro world in an enhanced way, bringing the viewer to a new level of understanding of the forms and objects that we cannot see.