Spotlight Marwen Course: Beyond the Naked Eye

Feature image: Chase Thilleman, CONTACT Canon, studio strobes, fish tank set

“This shot was inspired by the deep connection us humans have with water. Capturing the beauty of water that we overlook in our everyday lives.” Chase Thillman

Since my talk at the summer post term meeting I have had a few teaching artists approach me about contacting U of C for future collaborations with other art mediums. For all of you whom where unable to attend the meeting and for all of you considering a future collaboration with the Department, I thought it may be useful to take opportunity to briefly share in some insight about this wonderful collaboration and alliance of University of Chicago.

The two-week course titled Seeing the Unseen: Beyond the Naked Eye was divided into two segments. High Speed Photography and The microscopic. The first week of class students learned studio rigging system and lighting. Additionally students were visited by graduate and post-graduate physic students from the University of Chicago.  The University brought along with them their High Speed camera. The class received a demonstration from the graduate students on the physics of splashes. The class also experimented with balloon pops. After a quick lesson and demonstration the students were able to experiment with U of C High speed camera and captured the following videos:




After the students participated in these experiments, the students then used studio lighting and Marwen 35mm cameras to photograph their own high- speed images. Below are a couple samples of those results:

By: Chase Thilleman, IMPACT- Canon, studio strobes, and water rig 

By:Chase Thilleman, Sugar Rush, Canon, black set, and studio strobes

“The sugar inspired me to make a “snowy” sort of scene to bring me back to the cold winter in this hot summer.” Chase Thilleman 

By: Millenna Mitchell, Red, splashes of milk 35 mm digital camera

Additional tests performed by students using strobes and 35mm:

Week 2 the class visited the physics labs at the University Campus in Hyde Park. There the students had rare access to some state of the art equipment. They were able to capture these stills using the Universities SEM technology.

By: Millenna Mitchell, the black death oriental rat flea FEI Nova NanoSEM 230 University of Chicago

By: Zac Mascarenas, A Monument To An Old Friend, Chicago cicada head, Hitachi Tabletop SEM: TM-3000 University of Chicago.

By: Josue Varga, Flyball, Drosophila melanogaster (eye of fruit fly) FEI Nova NanoSEM 230 University of Chicago

By: Tristan Bugosv, The Virtruvian Fly, Musca domesticus (The head of a fruit fly) Olympus IX71, Brightfield The University of Chicago

What is a SEM?

SEM stands for scanning electron microscope. The SEM is a microscope that uses electrons instead of light to form an image. Since their development in the early 1950’s, scanning electron microscopes have developed new areas of study in the medical and physical science communities. The SEM has allowed researchers to examine a much bigger variety of specimens.

The scanning electron microscope has many advantages over traditional microscopes. The SEM has a large depth of field, which allows more of a specimen to be in focus at one time. The SEM also has much higher resolution, so closely spaced specimens can be magnified at much higher levels. Because the SEM uses electromagnets rather than lenses, the researcher has much more control in the degree of magnification. All of these advantages, as well as the actual strikingly clear images, make the scanning electron microscope one of the most useful instruments in research today.

How does a SEM work?

Diagram courtesy of Iowa State University

The SEM is an instrument that produces a largely magnified image by using electrons instead of light to form an image. A beam of electrons is produced at the top of the microscope by an electron gun. The electron beam follows a vertical path through the microscope, which is held within a vacuum. The beam travels through electromagnetic fields and lenses, which focus the beam down toward the sample. Once the beam hits the sample, electrons and X-rays are ejected from the sample.

Detectors collect these X-rays, backscattered electrons, and secondary electrons and convert them into a signal that is sent to a screen similar to a television screen. This produces the final image.

How is a sample prepared?

Because the SEM utilizes vacuum conditions and uses electrons to form an image, special preparations must be done to the sample. All water must be removed from the samples because the water would vaporize in the vacuum. All metals are conductive and require no preparation before being used. All non-metals need to be made conductive by covering the sample with a thin layer of conductive material. This is done by using a device called a “sputter coater.”

The sputter coater uses an electric field and argon gas. The sample is placed in a small chamber that is at a vacuum. Argon gas and an electric field cause an electron to be removed from the argon, making the atoms positively charged. The argon ions then become attracted to a negatively charged gold foil. The argon ions knock gold atoms from the surface of the gold foil. These gold atoms fall and settle onto the surface of the sample producing a thin gold coating.

The students also had the opportunity to explore microscopic photography at the labs. The following images are a result of those explorations with microscopes made available to Marwen students at the University of Chicago.

By: Brandyn Gonzalez, The Wonder Drug, Penicillium, Fungi used to create penicillin. Lecia microscope, bright field imaging University of Chicago


By: Queion Swift, Flowers for Trayvon Martin, Rhizopus†(common fungi) Leica Upright: Brightfield Image University of Chicago

By: Pamela Arcentales, Kaleidoscope, Tilia from a linden tree stem section Leica Upright, bright field image University of Chicago microscope facility

So you might say this is all heavy material for a summer high school art class. I agree, but fortunately I always remember to leave space to and time in my classes to be ridiculous. I ask my students to never take themselves too seriously and have a great time in anything they do. 

My hopes in writing this post were to inspire you to pursue this and other avenues through your own mediums, and to continue to foster this wonderful relationship between U of C and Marwen. Combining the arts and sciences (or any academics  for that matter)  can lead to a very rewarding outcomes for our students. Throughout my time at Marwen I have developed curriculums that promote the exchange and building of alliances between community centers such as LaSalle Street Senior Center, and most recently with U of C.

Contact Meghan Bush Vincent through Marwen’s department of education if you are interested in collaborating on a course proposal with the physics department at the University. 

Marta Garcia About Marta Garcia
Marta continues to work as a freelance photographer and as a teaching artist throughout the Chicago area. She currently teaches at Marwen where she has found great fulfillment in working with the young people of Chicago. Courses at Marwen have included collaborations with U of C’s Physics department in a high-speed photography course and LaSalle Street Senior Center in a portraiture course, where bonds between 6th-8th graders and seniors were forged. She has also developed exciting curriculums for courses ranging from photographic installations, multimedia photo and video, landscapes, and street photography. Marta is looking forward to many more exciting opportunities to share in with her students.

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