David Scharf started thinking small--really small--about 20 years ago. That was when he discovered, sitting in the laboratory of the big aerospace company where he had just reported for work, a scanning electron microscope.
It's an imposing piece of equipment, with a television monitor, a sturdy steel optical column and as many dials and meters as the control panel on your average airplane. When it's up and running, purring along with all the electronic power of a hospital X-ray machine, the SEM can scan things as small as eight-billionths of an inch in diameter.
Scharf fell in love with it. The humming contraption with the big console plunged him into another world, turning him into a kind of interdimensional traveler, he says.
"I was micronaut David Scharf, blasting off into microspace."
He hooked up the camera and--to hell with the vacuum physics research he was supposed to be doing--began spending his nights traveling deep into the ruthless, Darwinian world of microscopic life.
Since then, Scharf has probably done more than any one to give us the look and feel of "down there," as the photographer-engineer describes his special domain.
His astonishing pictures of tiny bugs and plants have illustrated stories in Newsweek, Discover, Geo, and National Geographic. Most recently, Time used Scharf's blow-ups of pollen, pet dander and the like for a cover story on allergies, and the current Life features his shot of a fruit-fly in a story on aging.
Scharf's photographs are in encyclopedias and museums, such as the new Insect Zoo in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He is in the credits for the movie "Blade Runner" (the scales from the cloned python in are actually Scharf's enlargement of a tiny section of a marijuana leaf), and his video documentary on bees ("The first SEM movie," he calls it) is permanently on view at the St. Louis Zoo.
His pictures of fleas and other household vermin were part of the August, 1990, ABC-TV special "The Secret Life of 118 Green Street."
Today there are dozens of people doing "micrography," taking pictures of things that are invisible or barely visible to the human eye. But Scharf probably does it better than anyone, says Valerie Livingston, a professor of art history at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.
"David is not only a scientist, he's a photographer," says Livingston, who is putting together an exhibit of microscopic photography that will tour the country next year. "He has this great eye."
Until Scharf stepped in, the electron microscope was just another research tool, Livingston says. Scientists used it to look at, say, the structure of a microchip or the reproductive organs of the fruit fly. "Their interest was purely documentary," Livingston says.
But along came Scharf, an intense man with the slight squint of someone who spends a lot of time focusing on small details, with an extraordinary congruence of talents. He was a science buff, a self-taught technologist, an amateur photographer and a free spirit--the perfect man to bring the scanning electron microscope into the realm of art, Livingston says.
Born in Asbury Park, N.J., Scharf was a science addict by the time he got to grammar school. He still has his first "micrograph," a ragged-edged snapshot of some crystals he took as an 11-year-old with a Brownie Hawkeye trained down the barrel of a "toy" microscope.
But Scharf didn't make it through Monmouth College, where he was a physics major. He quit after his junior year and headed west. "I wanted to see if I could find Big Foot of California," he says, with just a trace of the put-on in his voice. "I wanted come out and be a cowboy."
Scharf found a special affinity for the vast open spaces of the West, spending weeks on end in the mountains and desert. Then the money ran out. In Los Angeles, Scharf put his electronic talents to work, going from job to job in the aerospace and electronic firms, until he stumbled upon his life's work.
And he carried a camera around. "I was always taking weird, art pictures," he says. "I was always experimenting."
More than anything, says Livingston, it's probably Scharf's photographic skills that distinguish him from would-be competitors. "Because he's a photographer, he's familiar with the range of tonalities," she says. "His blacks are rich blacks; his whites are crisp whites."
Those early pictures--mostly of things he found in his own back yard, magnified 250,000 times or so--were swept up by magazines and museums. Many were printed as a 1977 book called "Magnifications."
Scharf was "an Ansel Adams of inner space," Time said.
"These pictures may provoke a metaphysical shudder--all that beauty that no one saw till now," added Newsweek.
Under Scharf's lens, pollen spores became leathery medicine balls or spike-covered floating mines, ready to explode. A housefly was suddenly a begoggled space invader, its hairy proboscis as snuffly and probing as a cocker spaniel's nose.