A small parcel arrived from Germany last week bearing, in addition to a seasonal offering of Lebkuchen, two stamps featuring diatoms, part of a series of stamps termed “Microworld”. A little detective work has revealed this picture to be the work of KAGE Institute of Scientific Photography, based in an impressive castle in Baden-Württemberg, about 60 km to the east of Stuttgart. Their website modestly includes Spiegel Online’s description of them as “Prominentester Mikrofotograf der Welt” (“most famous microphotographer in the world”).
Of course, after all I have written about the poor perception of algae in the wider world, it is good to see diatoms being honoured with their own stamp, even though false-coloured scanning electron micrographs (SEMs) rank low in my estimate of ways to depict the microscopic world. This relates to a deeper concern about the way in which we see the world through microscopes. It is a theme that I want to develop in a post in the near future; but it also overlaps with a broader concern about the reality of microscopic images more generally
SEMs beguile us with three-dimensional impressions of the microscopic world but they also present the transparent as opaque and everything is monochrome. The latter is a temptation to anyone with rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop to show off their skills although, in the process, they remove the image a little further away from “reality” and towards “abstraction”. Is that a problem? In artistic terms, the answer must be “no”, so long as we are honest about what is happening. Having abstracted the image (i.e. removed it from … ) its context, we are free to evaluate it purely in terms of artistic merit. We have had SEMs on the Hilda Canter-Lund shortlist that work as abstract images; however, one of the critera that the judges look for when drawing up the short list is to find basic authenticity and honesty in the images. That raises a whole lot of questions when dealing with the microscopic world, but does suggest a limit to the amount of image manipulation that is acceptable. The key point, in my opinion, is to ensure that the viewer never forgets that these organisms are part of the natural world and not products of the imagination of an inferior Salvador Dali clone.