During the height of the Victorian era, some of the finest works of art could only be viewed through a microscope. Their materials: The tiniest flotsam and jetsam of nature, and glue.
Starting in the 1830s, commercial demand for slides prepared with specimens such as insect scales, spines, and microscopic organisms skyrocketed as professionals and amateurs grew deeply interested in studying the microcosm. Diatoms, in particular, were a favored medium. These single-cell algae protected by glass shells come in thousands of different shapes, sizes, colors and varieties, and you can find them virtually anywhere there’s water.
The art of arranging diatoms into intricate, colorful patterns soon emerged as a spinoff of man’s fascination with the microscopic realm. Today, Englishman Klaus Kemp is the only remaining practitioner of the lost art form. Kemp collects diatoms, just microns wide, and arranges them under a microscope with a steady hand.
Documentary filmmaker Matthew Killip followed Kemp around for an afternoon to watch Kemp in action and see how makes his beautiful, microscopic displays in his short film “The Diatomist.”
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