Justin Zoll’s microscopic photography is one of the most perfect fusions of art and science we have ever seen. These mind-bending psychedelic images are all created by placing crystallized substances such as menthol, MDMA or caffeine onto a slide and using different light filters to create lurid, kaleidoscopic results.
We spoke with Justin Zoll to get an insight into how he creates these marvelous images, using virtually no post-production or digital manipulation outside of sticking together multiple images.
“The process is somewhat specific to the substance I am working with, but in general I will either melt a small amount of material between two glass slides using a small butane torch, or I will dissolve some material in a solvent. If I have a material that melts easily I simply wait for the molten liquid to crystallize as it cools. For many substances this happens within a few minutes.
“In the case of materials I dissolve, a small amount of the solution is deposited on a slide using a pipette and then allowed to dry. Sometimes I use a small hot plate to speed this process but of course different temperatures and drying times produce different results. Once I have my slide prepared I load it onto my microscope stage and begin observation. I use a polarizing filter between my light source and subject, and then another between my subject and my camera sensor.
“The crossed polarizers interact with the birefringent properties of the crystals, resulting in the wide array of colors seen in my images. Nearly all of my photos are stitched panoramas. The sharpness and field of view of a single frame is not usually quite sufficient for my purposes and so I take an array of perhaps 30 images to assemble into a larger final file.
“I do very little post production on my images. They are, as I said, mostly panoramas … but I do not consider this to be in any way manipulation. I might remove the odd sensor dust speck here and there, crop of course, and sometimes a little bit of exposure adjustment and sharpening. Nothing that changes the overall look of the image too drastically from that which is seen directly through the scope. I have an attachment to preserving the truth of the image in a certain sense. This carries over to most of my landscape work as well.
“One of the first substances that really surprised me was menthol. It’s quite easy to melt or dissolve and I have yet to get to a point where I feel I have exhausted the possibilities with it. It creates some fantastically diverse structures depending on how it is prepared.
The L-Glutamine and beta alanine series
“I had been experimenting with the crystallization of amino acids for a little while already before I came across this particular combination. I was already very fond of beta alanine as a medium before I combined these two. I actually have to give credit to another photographer who does work similar to mine; a fellow by the name of Matt Inman. I had seen Matt’s work online and really loved the forms of these two substances in combination.
“It took quite a lot of experimentation to produce crystals I was interested in photographing. I have had the best results with a solution of each in a roughly 1:1 ratio in a very high proof vodka. I deposit 100 μL of the resulting liquid on a slide and heat it on a low temperature using my hot plate. No matter how many times I repeat this process with seemingly similar parameters I end up with noticeably different results. Recently, the addition of taurine to this mix has added another layer of complexity to my work with these materials.
Take a look through the gallery for more of Justin Zoll’s amazing microscopic work.