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Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Microscopic Landscapes of Bernardo Cesare

It is an old canon of art, that every scene worth painting must have something of the sublime, the beautiful, or the picturesque. By its nature, photography can make no pretensions to represent the first, but beauty can be represented by its means, and picturesqueness has never had so perfect an interpreter.

Henry Peach Robinson

Is photography art? Since the early days of photography, this question has puzzled intellectuals and photographers. Henry Peach Robinson, best known for pioneering photomontage, advocated for photography to be regarded as an art form. Nevertheless, many intellectuals argued that photography was the mechanical reproduction of an image and, consequently, they casted doubt on its artistic nature.
The binomial aspect of photography – technical and artistic – emerges from its application to the Earth Sciences. In fact geoscientists have used cameras to document and illustrate geological features since the 19th century.
In 1859, Abramo Massalongo and Mauritius Lötze were among the first to use photography in paleontology. The Geological Magazine reviewed enthusiastically the work of Massalongo and Lötze: “The delicate cream coloured matrix offers such a strong contrast to the bright rich iron stained fossil remains that a better series to submit to the art of the photographer could hardly have been chosen”.

The Geological Magazine discusses about the application of photography to paleontology.
In the same years, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, one of the most influential photographers of the 19th century, pioneered the use of photography during geological fieldwork. O’Sullivan was invited to join the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, an epic geological survey under the directorship of Clarence King, art critic and geologist (founder of the United States Geological Survey). From 1867 to 1869, O’Sullivan’s camera accompanied adventuresome geologists exploring the wilderness of the Western American landscape. O’Sullivan celebrated the spare beauty of these remote areas, and at the same time documented their geological features.

Timothy O'Sullivan photographed the scientists of the "Geological Exploration of the Fourteenth Parallel" while surveying the Shoshone Canyon (Idaho). The majestic Shoshone Falls are in the background.
During its service at the U.S.Geological Survey, O'Sullivan realized stereoscopic pictures to give the illusion of
3D depth...more than 140 years before James Cameron's Avatar!
The image shows the Shoshone Falls. From the Library of Congress photostream.

The leap from Massalongo’s fossils to O’Sullivan’s canyons involves a notable scale jump. Nevertheless, geological processes act even on a wider scale range: from canyons to microscopic crystals. In the variegated scenario of contemporary photography, there is a special place to fill this scale gap: Padua. In this nice Italian city, there is a geologist able to understand continental clashes from minute crystals and, at the same time, he can translate microscopic landscapes into art. I went to Padua and I have got a very interesting talk with him:  Bernardo Cesare, the artistic petrographer.

Bernardo Cesare, geologist and artist.
1.    Tell us about your scientific background.
I am a geologist, specialized in petrology (the study of rocks) and in particular in metamorphic rocks and in the origin of granites. I received a MsC (1987) ad a PhD in Earth Sciences (1992) from the University of Padova (Italy), where now I am Professor of Petrology. I've spent research periods in Zurich (Switzerland), Princeton (USA) and Clermont-Ferrand (France), and the field areas I study are in the eastern Alps, southern Spain, the Eolian islands and southern India. In the last decade I've been intensely involved in the advanced training of early stage researchers in petrology, coordinating the Marie Curie Project "Eurispet" (

2.    How do you describe your photographic style?

Technically speaking it is "Transmitted polarized light photomicroscopy of rocks and minerals" that translates into "photography of what you see looking down a microscope when polarized light is passed through a piece of rock or mineral". There are two essential aspects in this technique: that the light is polarized (using special lenses similar to those of many sunglasses) and that it passes through the crystals. In order to become transparent the rock must be sliced to a thickness of 30 micrometers (!).
Actually what I just described is not at all a "style" of mine, as it is the conventional way of studying rocks that all geologists adopt. My own addition to it is the search for an aesthetic image, that I generally obtain with a non-conventional use of polarizers and compensators (like the red tint 'lambda' plate), modifying the interference colors of minerals. In this way I can disclose the microscopic secrets within a stone.
In his website, Bernardo Cesare describes these 'crystal waves': "These undulating patterns are the result of deformation. Smashing, squeezing, and shearing of rocks create alignment and folding of crystals to give an idea of movement".
3.    How did you get into this vein of photography?
Photography is an essential tool for a geologist. In my case, along with being interested in outdoor, macro and reportage, I have extensively used photomicrography for research, in order to document the small-scale phenomena that I could see in rocks. Beside this scientific side, where I have got most of my training and acquired the technical rigor, I have cultivated the search for the beauty of rocks under the microscope. This 20 year-long amateur activity has recently boosted, after my images received the appreciation of audience and juries at international level, until I started the Microckscopica - Rock Art project (

4.    What do your photomicrographs tell about Earth? And what about Art?
My photomicrographs are taken primarily because of their aesthetic appeal: I take a picture because I like its visual impact, even if I don't know much (or anything) about the geological story of the rock. I don't know if this can be called "Art": I use to say that the artist is the rock, not me! What I do is to disclose the Art in rocks like a reporter at a Museum. Yes, I help bring to life the colors, but the shapes, textures and patterns are already there.
There's no geology in the process I just described. However, when I use rock samples that I do my own research on, the image may tell a fascinating geological tale: of continents separating or smashing into each other, of volcanos erupting with explosions, of phenomena that occur in inacessible parts of our planet, of millions or billions of years in the Earth's life. So I would conclude that images at Microckscopica may tell something about the Earth, but not necessarily.
 "These are images from rocks samples I collected in the Tauern Window, a geological region of the Alps. I took these photos to complement an exhibit of minerals from the collection of G. Gasser,
in honor of A. Bianchi and Gb. Dal Piaz, who explored the italian sector of the Tauern Window in 1920-1930" says Bernardo Cesare..

5.    Would you give a brief walk through your workflow?
Let's start from scratch, saying that I collect or get a chunk of rock I want to take nice images from. What I have to do first is to get a carefully prepared and polished "thin section": a 30 micron-thick slice of rock glued to a glass holder. The thin section has to be made by a technician with quite a sophisticated process, and the cleaner and more polished it is, the better and sharp the photo will be.
Then I look at the thin section under a camera-equipped microscope (this is also what I do for my regular research activity) and when I find a beautiful subject I take one or more photographs varying the interference colors. Digital photography has been a revolution in this stage, because I can immediately see what the picture looks like without having to wait for film processing, and can take dozens of images for free. Then, since there's almost no post-processing (see below), I check the results and store the images in my computer.

6.    How do you find your subjects?
In three ways: looking at my own samples while I am doing research; borrowing interesting thin sections from colleagues; collecting, purchasing or asking people chunks of rocks that I know are, or could be, aesthetically promising. For example, last summer I bought a beautiful necklace made with beads of "Ocean Jasper" (see below). I knew that the rock was interesting, so instead of giving the necklace to my wife as a gift, I had thin sections made from the beads.
When the thin sections are ready I browse through them until I find a good one, and I "play" with the polarisators and compensators until I obtain a nice composition.

7.    What kind of equipment do you use?
After using for several years a conventional camera with tungsten-light film for color slides, now I have a 18-mpixel Canon 550D digital reflex mounted on a Zeiss Axioscop 40 polarizing microscope.

8.    Do you post-process your photos?
In general I try to avoid any post-processing, even image cropping. This means that I like to have the "right" image colors and composition exactly within and at the 3/4 or 2/3 format of the camera, and with the chosen magnifying lens, at the time of taking the picture. After shooting, I use Photoshop only for subtle modifications of contrast and brightness.

9.    What kind of rock do you like to shoot most and why?
Well, there are many, because (as long as the thin-section is carefully prepared) almost any rock "hides a microscopic universe of colors and forms". Sedimentary rocks, especially limestones, are difficult due to the high birefringence of carbonates. Therefore I prefer to work with metamorphic and igneous rocks. If I had to choose just one, I'd say that "Ocean Jasper", a weathered spherulitic rhyolite from Madagascar, is the one that provided many beautiful subjects. It should be pointed out that although I work primarily with rocks, there are other things that provide very beautiful images with the polarized light. One of them is nylon, and you can see some images in the Microckscopica web gallery.
A rock sample coming from Kerala (see next question).
 10.    Could you share a favourite recent image and tell us a little of the back story behind it?
I like very much this image, that was taken from a rock sample coming from Kerala (India) and provided by my colleague Satish Kumar. It shows black areas interspersed between colorful patches. The black are crystals of graphite, while the colored crystals are silicates called felspars. In this region of southern India graphite is common, and can be so abundant to be economically exploited. The rock (and the graphite it contains) formed about 550 million years ago, at very high temperatures (more than 850 °C) deep in the crust. At that time India, Madagascar, Antarctica and south-east Africa were joined together as part of a supercontinent called Gondwana. This is the reason why we find very similar rocks in all these places.
The size of the rock fragment captured in this image is approximately 3.5 mm in length.

11.    What has been your most memorable award and why?
The ninth prize and one image of distinction at the Nikon Small World 2009 contest have been the most rewarding prize, because they certified that my images have reached a very high standard. From a different perspective, the request from a woman in New Jersey to use my photomicrographs as inspiration for producing artistic quilts confirmed my opinion that photomicrographs of rocks are aesthetically very appealing.
8 March, Chirignago (Venice): Microckscopica per Wamba.

12.    What will you have on display at “Microckscopica per Wamba”?
This exhibit will showcase about 25 images printed on canvas, their size ranging from 45*60 to 90*90 cm. The subjects represent a kind of "best of" selection, without a particular geographic or geological identification. Just beauty! There are sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks from all over the world, including the near Venetian Prealps and the far Antarctica. The important thing of this show is that images can be purchased through a donation to the charitable Association "Insieme per Wamba" (, thereby helping to provide food, medical assistance and education to the people of Wamba, a village in Kenya.

13.    Traditional photographic printing or canvas print? Which do you prefer and how does your approach differ for each medium?
The printing technology is quickly reaching, and passing, new frontiers. Nowadays digital files can be printed on almost any kind of surface and medium, opening infinite opportunities for the use of the image and to its visual representation. I've chosen to print my images on canvas rather than on paper because in this way (and with their "abstract" subjects) they become very similar to paintings, and this enhances their effect as decorative art. This doesn't affect my approach, as the printing resolution and technique is very similar in both cases. With time I want to explore different media, such as glass or plexiglass for retroillumination (see below) or wood or metal.

14.    What projects are you currently working on?
With museum curator, Dr. Benno Baumgarten, I am preparing the next exhibition that is planned for this summer at the Museum of Natural Sciences of Bolzano. It will be entitled "Light on the Rocks", and will include about thirty large-format (50*75 cm) images from Microckscopica, printed on plexiglass and mounted as backlit panels. I hope that "Light on the Rocks" will become a traveling exhibition.

15.    What do you aspire for? What are your dreams as an artist and a geologist?
As a geologist I aspire for a better future for research in Italy: it is more and more difficult to work with enthusiasm when you see that everything falls apart.
As an "artist" one of my goals is to publish a book of Microckscopica images: a coffee table book with large-format pictures. But the "dream of dreams" is an article in National Geographic...
"Flowers in the geologic greenhouse are quite small, down to less than a millimetre, and take
up to hundreds million years to grow. But if we have the chance to get some,
they may last forever, and do not need watering or fertilizer" says Bernardo Cesare.