Is this some kind of rare jewel? Or perhaps a luridly lit cave? How about a landscape from the latest fantasy video game? A computer was involved in making the image, but the subject is all too real. If this spiky terrain gives you a slightly queasy feeling, there's a reason: it's a kidney stone. Not actual size, of course, just one magnified 400 times and presented in a rainbow of false color. This image, made in 1998, is one of hundreds of specimens – animal, vegetable and mineral – shot by photographer and scientist David Scharf, a world-renowned pioneer in microscopy. For more than 30 years, Scharf, based in Los Angeles, has painstakingly documented a world that is largely unseen by the naked eye, bringing out the beauty in the grotesque.
Like most kidney stones, the one seen here is made mostly of jagged-edged calcium oxylate crystals. "You can see why they hurt so much," Scharf says. "Even at this magnification, it looks like a bunch of razor blades."
The core of Scharf's technology is the scanning electron microscope, a device that has been showing us incredibly detailed images of microscopic objects for decades. What makes Scharf's images unique, and artistically compelling, is his patented Multi-Detector Color Synthesizer. By viewing an object with not one but three electron detectors, the instrument produces an image from three different angles, each one coded with a separate arbitrary color.
The false color, Scharf says, "helps you to read the images better" and produces the illusion of three dimensions. The exceptional clarity, he says, comes from having no lenses to distort the image.
Because many of the science journals that would be most interested in such esoteric photography can rarely afford to hire him, Scharf usually picks subjects that interest him and adds them to his growing stock collection. His portfolio includes everything from mosquitoes to microchips. "Whatever strikes my fancy," he says. "Little insects are my favorite. I had my doctor save my daughter's tonsils so I could photograph them, too."
The purpose of Scharf's work, however, is not just to give people the creeps. Many of his photos are used by scientists to teach medical students about the nature of biological structures. His latest project involves making images of embryonic stem cells, which will be studied by researchers at Harvard University.
The kidney stone image is now included in Science Faction, a collection of photographs pertaining to the physical and natural sciences. Science Faction, created in 2004 by photographer Roger Ressmeyer, recently was purchased by Getty Images.
Scharf's work has been seen in magazines such as Scientific American, Discover, National Geographic, Time, Life and Newsweek, and in countless books, newspapers and technical journals. Some of his latest work will be exhibited this August in Honolulu at the Microscopy & Microanalysis 2005 conference.
For more than you ever wanted to know about what's crawling around your house at night, visit Scharf's micro-menagerie at scharfphoto.com.