Interview with Martin Oeggerli

by Abu Lido


OR Not magazine has interviewed the Swiss photographer Martin Oeggerli known internationally for his outstanding work on the images obtained with SEM-Scanning Electron Microscopy- and winner of numerous awards.

Could you briefly explain what SEM (scanning electron microscopy) is, the tool you use to take pictures?
SEM stands for Scanning Electron Microscopy. A scientific technology that was developed after world war II. It later resulted in a Noble laureate of physics given to Ernst Ruska in 1986. SEM uses electrons instead of light to document microscopically small things. Because it is based on electrons, the technology is capable to produce much higher magnifications than for example the light microscope. It is powerful enough to show detail of bacteria, pollen, or even viruses. However, SEM is limited to greyscale scans because the technology is not based on light and cannot detect lightwaves or colors. Is rather a topographic tool that allows you to scan and visualize a very small surface area.

Does SEM offer greater opportunities to a photographer than traditional camera? If so, which are they?
SEM allows us to plunge into an invisible world filled with very strange but fascinating organisms at the same time, despite the limited size — or maybe exactly because of it!

How do you work with the SEM to achieve your final product? How do you choose samples and where do you find them? I think for example of bacteria, spores of fungi, insect eggs, seeds, and semiconductors.
Depending on the project, my specimens can be found just around the corner or they are provided by area specialists and come from all around the world.

SEM images are always black and white: how do you decide to tint the images and what kind of changes can you make in addition to the color?
Coloring greyscale pictures lets the (dead) specimens become alive! Usually I refer to natural colors, or at least something that makes sense from a scientific point of view. Colors make my works more attractive and help to reach a greater audience. On close examination, whatsoever, the reason why I decided to color all my images is somewhat more subtile: modifying images and wisely choosing colors certainly helps to interpret data. Especially in the field of microscopy scientists usually can’t display their results as statistical numbers. Therefore choosing the right picture and the right colors to represent the result is critical, and I think it is a good thing to present data in the way that makes it easily understandable.

Do you believe that SEM is an excellent tool for artists and creative people?
No, it’s really not worth to try — please stay away from it and let me play with the cool stuff all alone… (laughter)!

Do you believe that your work is mainly targeted (is principally intended) to science or has it a strong artistic content, due to the beauty and strangeness of the organism shapes?
First of all, my work is based on a technology that is mostly used and best known in combination with research topics. It is probably also a question of the costs and expenses: a state-of-the-art SEM costs over a 1 million Swiss francs and involves annual running costs of between 30’000.- to 60’000.- Swiss francs.

Apart from that, my work is about structures and organisms that have been formed by nature. You can call it a modern expedition into the invisible world. Some works clearly are scientific documents. Others are about forms and colors — and that’s much closer to Scientific Pop Art than science! These abstract works don’t really need to be analyzed scientifically, though the information is present and if you are an expert it is fun to discover it. But these works function just as well without the scientific content.

Either way, the most important part of my work is that it is about having fun. I don’t like complicated works of art requiring analysis and background information about the artist that only mean something to an expert, etc. If I look at design or artworks myself, I want to enjoy the flow of forms and colors as an inspiration. You cannot push the audience and ask for complex background information all the time. I want my audience to have fun exploring my works. Just as much as I have during my invisible encounters, and I’m really loving it!


Photo credits:
Micronaut – Martin Oeggerli

1 | Brittle Star Micro Lens Array
2 | Mosquito Larvae Feeding Hairs
3 | Bryopsida Dry Moss Capsules
4 | Pollen Ambrosia
5 | Butterfly Egg Caligo Memnon
6 | Pollen Armeria
7 | Pollen Eranthemum
8 | Pollen Gazania
9 | Pollen Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria
10 | Pollen Wittrockia Cyathiformis
11 | Pollen Pinus Sylvestris

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