Framing tiny things

Seed Magazine showcases some of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time: Howard Lynk’s collection of Antique Microscope Slides from the Victorian Era c. 1830s – 1890s.

In the early 1800s, as optical instruments like the microscope became more refined, there was a corresponding demand for things to look at and a commercial industry in prepared or mounted slides emerged. Not only did these slides gather and portray an astounding array of natural objects, but the actual mountings are beautifully crafted.

“Many of the slides…use a method of construction wherein the mounting slide (usually a 1″ x 3″ piece of glass or wood) is covered either wholly or in part with colourful gilt decorated lithographed papers. This practice of using paper covers originated as a necessary means to mechanically fasten the mica or thin glass covers that were placed over the specimens, to the main slide. However, the paper covers quickly became more of an expression of decoration and individual presentation than need, as the use of Canada Balsam and other mounting media became widespread. Much of the best early preparers work is immediately recognizable, as they each settled on standard paper colours and graphic designs, which became their trademark of sorts.”

Individual craftsmen – and they do appear to have been men – became known by their particular styles, and slides often bore the name of both the mounter and the optician who sold the slides. I was quite taken by the arranged slides – where many small objects were placed to form designs or patterns. Some of this work was so delicate that it required the use of boar bristles or cat whiskers to manoeuver the tiny objects or pieces into place.

Diatoms (Ernst Thum)

Radiolarians (Amos Topping)

Diatoms, Butterfly Scales, and Spicules (Mounter Unknown)

“A variation on the ‘Arranged Object’ mounts, Exhibition slides [1st and 3rd above] were often considered to be the pinnacle of the commercial mounters art, considering the degree of difficulty in their preparation. Combining various objects, often many 100s (or 1000s!) of individual butterfly or insect scales, diatoms, spicules, etc.; each piece was individually selected and assembled to create pictures or complex geometric arrangements.”

I was also really impressed to learn about microphotos, or those photographic images of “famous people, art works, buildings, geographic landmarks, etc.” that are only visible through a microscope.

There’s just something really astonishing about seeing the moon through a microscope; it messes with everything I understand about scale!

But I think that, most of all, I just love the attention to detail and the value placed on materiality. And I wonder: is there any contemporary or digital equivalent?

[Cross-posted at PLSJ, with comments]