David Scharf started thinking small--really small--about 20 years ago. That was when he discovered, sitting in the laboratory of the big aerospace company where he had just reported for work, a scanning electron microscope.
It's an imposing piece of equipment, with a television monitor, a sturdy steel optical column and as many dials and meters as the control panel on your average airplane. When it's up and running, purring along with all the electronic power of a hospital X-ray machine, the SEM can scan things as small as eight-billionths of an inch in diameter.
Scharf fell in love with it. The humming contraption with the big console plunged him into another world, turning him into a kind of interdimensional traveler, he says.
"I was micronaut David Scharf, blasting off into microspace."
He hooked up the camera and--to hell with the vacuum physics research he was supposed to be doing--began spending his nights traveling deep into the ruthless, Darwinian world of microscopic life.
Since then, Scharf has probably done more than any one to give us the look and feel of "down there," as the photographer-engineer describes his special domain.
His astonishing pictures of tiny bugs and plants have illustrated stories in Newsweek, Discover, Geo, and National Geographic. Most recently, Time used Scharf's blow-ups of pollen, pet dander and the like for a cover story on allergies, and the current Life features his shot of a fruit-fly in a story on aging.
Scharf's photographs are in encyclopedias and museums, such as the new Insect Zoo in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He is in the credits for the movie "Blade Runner" (the scales from the cloned python in are actually Scharf's enlargement of a tiny section of a marijuana leaf), and his video documentary on bees ("The first SEM movie," he calls it) is permanently on view at the St. Louis Zoo.
His pictures of fleas and other household vermin were part of the August, 1990, ABC-TV special "The Secret Life of 118 Green Street."
Today there are dozens of people doing "micrography," taking pictures of things that are invisible or barely visible to the human eye. But Scharf probably does it better than anyone, says Valerie Livingston, a professor of art history at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.
"David is not only a scientist, he's a photographer," says Livingston, who is putting together an exhibit of microscopic photography that will tour the country next year. "He has this great eye."
Until Scharf stepped in, the electron microscope was just another research tool, Livingston says. Scientists used it to look at, say, the structure of a microchip or the reproductive organs of the fruit fly. "Their interest was purely documentary," Livingston says.
But along came Scharf, an intense man with the slight squint of someone who spends a lot of time focusing on small details, with an extraordinary congruence of talents. He was a science buff, a self-taught technologist, an amateur photographer and a free spirit--the perfect man to bring the scanning electron microscope into the realm of art, Livingston says.
Born in Asbury Park, N.J., Scharf was a science addict by the time he got to grammar school. He still has his first "micrograph," a ragged-edged snapshot of some crystals he took as an 11-year-old with a Brownie Hawkeye trained down the barrel of a "toy" microscope.
But Scharf didn't make it through Monmouth College, where he was a physics major. He quit after his junior year and headed west. "I wanted to see if I could find Big Foot of California," he says, with just a trace of the put-on in his voice. "I wanted come out and be a cowboy."
Scharf found a special affinity for the vast open spaces of the West, spending weeks on end in the mountains and desert. Then the money ran out. In Los Angeles, Scharf put his electronic talents to work, going from job to job in the aerospace and electronic firms, until he stumbled upon his life's work.
And he carried a camera around. "I was always taking weird, art pictures," he says. "I was always experimenting."
More than anything, says Livingston, it's probably Scharf's photographic skills that distinguish him from would-be competitors. "Because he's a photographer, he's familiar with the range of tonalities," she says. "His blacks are rich blacks; his whites are crisp whites."
Those early pictures--mostly of things he found in his own back yard, magnified 250,000 times or so--were swept up by magazines and museums. Many were printed as a 1977 book called "Magnifications."
Scharf was "an Ansel Adams of inner space," Time said.
"These pictures may provoke a metaphysical shudder--all that beauty that no one saw till now," added Newsweek.
Under Scharf's lens, pollen spores became leathery medicine balls or spike-covered floating mines, ready to explode. A housefly was suddenly a begoggled space invader, its hairy proboscis as snuffly and probing as a cocker spaniel's nose.
The fly's bulging compound eye, given a few extra turns of the magnification dial, became an airy geodesic dome.
There were marijuana leaves, with fat, cartoon-like thorns jutting from their cobbled surfaces, and the furry underside of a mosquito, with hairs sprouting like tufts of marsh grass. An ant revealed itself as a pensive-looking egghead, with a soft, velvety carapace and wobbly, asymmetrical antennae.
"He's like a portrait photographer who takes a whole day just to get the right expression on somebody's face," says Charles Lyman, a Lehigh University professor of materials science who just stepped down as president of the Electron Microscope Society of America. "David does that with insects."
In electron microscope circles, Scharf is something of a celebrity. At the society's annual meeting in Boston last month, scientists lined up in front of Scharf like movie fans, as the micrographer signed copies of his blow-up of a flea.
Scharf is only half-kidding when he talks about blasting off into microspace. The things he sees are as astonishing as anything in outer space, he says.
He recalls his awe in the early days. "I'd be sitting there late at night, looking at some astoundingly beautiful thing," he says, "and my hand would be trembling as I tried to record it before it vanished and proved itself not real."
Here's the micronaut now, sitting at the controls in his studio in Silver Lake, ready to leave the mundane world behind once again. He has his own equipment now, and he's got it fine-tuned for high resolution photographs. He inserts a specimen, releases the air from the optical column and flips on the monitor.
"Our senses confine us to a niche of reality," Scharf says, fiddling with some dials, "a tiny band of the electromagnetic spectrum. At best, we can see a tenth of a millimeter. This (the SEM) will take us two or three orders of magnitude beyond that."
The scene on the monitor is an impenetrable landscape of blasted rock. Scharf manipulates the sensors so that he can browse, panning past cliffs and rubble heaps. Unruly piles of boulders lie at the base of towering escarpments; great sandstone plates tilt precariously, fractured by fault lines.
We are looking at a bit of chopped aspirin.
Scharf continues his search. "You try to find a nice composition of some sort," he says. "Maybe you want it to look like Indian ruins in Arizona." He turns some dials, and the picture assumes a multihued look, with the ochers and burnt siennas of the desert. This is one of Scharf's patented innovations: the "multi-detector color synthesizing system," a kind of paint box for the microscope.
Of course, the SEM is about as close to an optical microscope as the Stealth bomber is to a World War I biplane. The SEM's lens is not a glass disk but a magnetic field. Instead of light, it uses a beam of electrons, which scans across the surface of a specimen. The scanning electrons knock other electrons into the vacuum tube, where they are registered by sensors.
The "secondary" electrons send signals, which are reassembled as pictures in a high-resolution cathode ray tube.
Before Scharf started taking pictures, the conventional wisdom said that you couldn't put live things in the SEM optical column. "I was told nothing wet could go in there," Scharf says, with an indulgent smile. "It would immediately boil and vaporize, splattering all over the inside of the column."
In those days, you had to chloroform an insect and gold-coat--usually using a vaporized gold-palladium compound--before you took its picture. The specimens were dead, and they looked it. They had a scrunched and shriveled look, often with bits of debris clinging to them.
But Scharf, confident that he could repair anything he broke, began experimenting with low voltage. "You can put a drop of water in a vacuum, and the surface tension will hold it together," he said. "The integrity of the plant or the animal protects it." Most of his specimens were returned unscathed to his back yard.
Scharf works on assignments from magazines or researchers or draws income from his large stock of pictures. It's a living, says Scharf, who charges about $2,000 for a color picture, $500 for a black-and-white one. "You could say I'm on the high end of professional photographers," he says.
It's a harsh and predatory world, but there's a sublime purity to these creatures--"our fellow earthlings," Scharf calls them.
You don't see many traces of man in Scharf's domain. "It's almost untouched down there," he says. "Crystals are forming, plants are growing the way they always have, things unfold. It's still very pristine."
Years of gazing at tiny blips on the edge of existence have given Scharf an an almost religious respect for non-human forms of life. There's a sublime purity to his subjects, he says. "They're our fellow earthlings."