See the extraordinary splendour of ordinary chemicals

From substances like artificial vanilla and vitamin C, a photographer creates a realm of enchantment.

By Nina Strochlic
Published 10 Feb 2023, 16:51 GMT
On a glass slide illuminated by polarized light, tiny crystals of vanillin (artificial vanilla essence) paint a psychedelic picture.
Photograph by Peter Woitschikowski

What do you see in these images? A palm-frond jungle? Bright bird feathers? Taking the Rorschach test that is Peter Woitschikowski’s photomicrography, viewers often compare the shapes with the natural world. But he asks them to embrace the abstract instead—to see something entirely new. “The hope is to turn the fantasy on,” he says.

Salicylic acid and lactic acid, compounds used in skin care products, collide to create an otherworldly image in gold and indigo.
Photograph by Peter Woitschikowski
Melted and then cooled, sulfur forms a canyon of microcrystals. Peter Woitschikowski can spend weeks searching his slides for the perfect image.
Photograph by Peter Woitschikowski
Woitschikowski works only when he’s relaxed. “When you’re stressed,” he says, “you cannot see pictures,” such as this one of ascorbic acid, or vitamin C.
Photograph by Peter Woitschikowski

In the 1980s, Woitschikowski, who lives in Germany, bought a microscope after seeing a magazine spread of microcrystal photography. He wanted to reveal this wondrous world that’s invisible to the unaided eye. The shapes are formed on glass lab plates by heating chemicals, such as acetaminophen, or mixing them with water or alcohol. As the substances cool or dry, crystals appear. When illuminated by polarised light, some seem to leap into a ballet of form and colour.

The process is so delicate that even slight vibrations can ruin it. That’s why Woitschikowski uses a remote shutter trigger and works late at night when vehicle traffic outside his studio has subsided. “It’s a great experiment,” he says. “You don’t know what you’ll see when you begin.”

Polarized light gives microcrystals of liquid acetaminophen a three-dimensional effect.
Photograph by Peter Woitschikowski
To capture the microcrystals, Woitschikowski mounts his camera to a microscope and snaps the shutter with a click of the computer mouse.
Photograph by Peter Woitschikowski

This story appears in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine. A version of this story was originally published in the Hungarian edition of National Geographic magazine.


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