Articles

The Last Victorian Microscope Artist

The art of diatom designs didn’t really make it into the 21st century.

A slide of arranged diatoms by Klaus Kemp (screenshot by the author from "The Diatomist" on Vimeo)
A slide of arranged diatoms by Klaus Kemp (screenshot by the author from “The Diatomist” on Vimeo)

Few did obsessive nature handicrafts like the Victorians, whether it was seaweed scrapbooking or shell arranging, something of the salon repression boiling over into insanely labored DIY arts. One of the fascinations was with the newly accessible microscopes, which showed previously invisible specimens such as the single cell algae diatoms, of which there are hundreds of different types in the world. With a single hair, practitioners would scoot the diatoms, encircled by iridescent glass-like silica cell walls, into kaleidoscope patterns only viewable beneath a lens.

A slide of arranged diatoms by Klaus Kemp (screenshot by the author from "The Diatomist" on Vimeo)
A slide of arranged diatoms by Klaus Kemp (screenshot by the author from “The Diatomist” on Vimeo)

Due to this being incredibly tedious, the art of diatom designs didn’t really make it into the 21st century. However, filmmaker Matthew Killip found one Englishman named Klaus Kemp who is carrying on the craft. In the short documentary The Diatomist, shared earlier this year on Vimeo, Killip visits Kemp at the work he’s perfected over years of research, showing some of the gorgeous miniature art, as well as expeditions to the water the diatoms call home. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a horse trough, or a ditch, gutters, you name it, where there is water it’s worth having a look,” Kemp says in the film.

“Klaus Kemp has devoted his entire life to understanding and perfecting diatom arrangement and he is now acknowledged as the last great practitioner of this beautiful combination of art and science,” Killip writes alongside the film. Kemp uses a needle instead of the Victorian hair to move the diatoms around, but the results are just as labored and lovely as the antique examples. You can see more of them at Kemp’s Microlife Services site.

h/t Boing Boing

comments (0)