For all the infinite vastness of the universe we’ve seen through telescopes, the world seen under a microscope also reveals some pretty alien-looking vistas. Like the tiny cosmos hidden inside gemstones, a realm that photomicrographer Danny Sanchez captures in striking photographs.
“When I first started looking through the microscope at gemstones, it was all space to me,” says Sanchez, who’s spent the last eight years learning to examine and photograph gemological interiors. “It was all the limitless imagination of outer space.”
Sanchez’s images reflect an awe for the cosmos, and the aesthetic influence of science fiction. Shattered remnants of a doomed planet emerge from microscopic rubite embedded in sapphire; the pyramidal pyrite shell of some ancient being drifts in geological time; a mountainous horizon hidden in a nugget of quartz looks absolutely extraterrestrial. The photos recall sci-fi visionary John Berkey.
At the center of most of Sanchez’s pictures are the random bits of minerals stuck in a larger gem–what are called intrusions. To collectors, they’re imperfections that reduce the value of the stone–to Sanchez, they are things of beauty.
He digs through bin upon bin of gemstones at trade shows, searching for the subject of his next image. He examines the stones and intrusions with a 10x microscope loop and fiber optic light he carries with him, gathering a sense for their inner worlds.
“I’ve got to hit all the gem shows and all the local events,” he says. “I like the ones that are flawed. They’ve got the stuff inside them. I’m actually lucky in that regard because people don’t want them, so I get to pay less for them.”
Depth of a Field
Sanchez’s images fall under the category of photomicrography–pictures of very, very small things taken through a microscope. It’s a broad field in which his images are at least partially unique.
The bulk of photomicrographic imagery comes out of academic research. Insects, microbes, circulatory systems, the vast majority focus on organic subject matter. Gemological intrusions are generally a less common subject, and certainly not the object of most photomicrographers’ fascination.
“They’re interested in documenting, ‘Oh this material is found in conjunction with this material, how interesting–we should document that,’” he says. “There’s only so much conversation that someone like that can have with me before we just totally diverge on our technique.”
To Sanchez, the most relevant distinction is the effort to create images at the standard of a fine art. He’s working more to convey a sense of sublimity he feels rather than to categorize or document what he photographs in a scientific way.
“It’s really tricky, and I wish I had someone I could just call up and ask why is this not working? How do I get this better, how do I get it cleaner? But there’s not, so I’m just sort of feeling around.”
What’s He Building in There
Without an institutional budget to throw at gear, Sanchez had to build his shooting rig piecemeal. It took almost ten years of scouring eBay before he could produce images at the level of quality he wanted. For shooting at the microscopic level, gear always comes first.
“There were so many obstacles … if you don’t have the right equipment you can’t overcome them,” he says. “There’s only so good an image you can make.”
Sanchez lights the gems with fiber optic tubes and a main light. He adjusts the light and controls shadow with teensy reflector cards and black foil. The image is captured by a specially adapted Wild Heerbrugg m450 microscope, with a light path streamlined so that it travels almost directly into a Canon 5D. A host of custom optical and stabilizing segments hold the rig together, and it’s all mounted to a vibration resistant platform.
An integral part of this process is called “stacking,” which means shooting the same subject at varying depths of field and then recombining the layers into a single sharp image. An ever present risk is over-stacking (often Sanchez will layer dozens of shots in a single image), which can force in too much color and depth information to produce the subtler sense of space he’s aiming for.
Stacking a crazy precise process that requires a step motor that can move the focus by microns at a time, allowing for super fast exposures at different points along the inclusions.
All the equipment and precision allows Sanchez to chart a course through gemological innerspace. When he comes upon a striking scene, he can drop anchor and start shooting. The experience can be pretty otherworldly, even though the whole rig resides in a small room in his house.
“I have to turn the lights off in this room, and then turn the fiber optic lights on, so it’s very much this laboratory vibe because it’s so dark and mysterious. And I’m staring into a window, seeing something totally different than the reality around me.”
The Big Picture
Sanchez is not just an admirer, he’s also an expert on the gems themselves. By looking at the stones he can tell you if they’re natural or synthetic, if they’ve been exposed to extreme heat, where in the world they might have come from. He’s as interested in making photographs as in the phenomenology of what he’s observing.
“I really try hard not to do anything false, like use false colors. I comp my images, sure, but it’s just as you see it through the microscope. It’s mostly Lightroom, and a little bit of Photoshop dodging and that’s it. That’s not to say I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time staring at it in Lightroom day after day to make sure it’s right.”
The ultimate goal is to present an exhibition of the photos, printed large next to the stones they came from so that the vast scale suggested in the images can be experienced right next to the tiny reality of them.
That’s part of the reason Sanchez keeps the stones he photographs. In any case there’s certainly not much of a financial incentive for keeping them–their “flawed” nature makes them unfit for most collectors. For him the true excitement comes from the singular instant when a photo emerges from the development process to reveal something never seen before.
“It’s that moment when you look at it and gasp,” he says. “You can’t believe that it looks like that.”
All photos by Danny Sanchez