UPTOWN — Staring down at explosive molecules under a microscope, Uptown resident Sebastian Sparenga found a link between science and art.
Ten years ago, Sparenga joined the McCrone Research Institute as a research microscopist charged with documenting scientific research samples for analysis. He had to take pictures of chemical compounds using a specialized microscope.
Sparenga, now a professional photographer, said he spotted abstract art in compounds like caffeine, soy sauce, cholesteryl acetate, vitamin C and TNT, which was one of the first substances that piqued his artistic interest.
"It was when we first started looking at explosives under the microscope," said Sparenga, a 35-year-old Ohio native who lives in Uptown with his wife and two dogs. "A lot of the explosives, such as TNT, can be easily identified by heating them until they melt and then letting them crystallize again — and that's when they form this beautiful pattern that can be reproduced."
He learned the technical aspects of photography through his job, "because I had to be able to take pictures through the microscope," he said.
Sparenga sold his photomicrography pieces in September at the Andersonville City Made Festival, a celebration of local beer, music and art. He said that most people don't know initially what exactly they are looking at when they encounter his work.
"Once they find out what it actually is," Sparenga said, "the common one-word phrases I get are 'Wow,' and 'Really?'"
Explaining how he creates an image of a chemical compound, Sparenga said he heats a sample on a slide until the compound melts, and then lets it cool at room temperature.
While it cools, it forms "a solid crystalline sheet," he said, which he then photographs using a "microscope dedicated camera." Sparenga said he uses polarizing filters so that people can see the colors in the compounds, which can vary based on the chemistry of the sample.
Sparenga barely alters the pictures after the images are captured other than increasing the contrast a little and sometimes sharpening an image "to make it look like what it does through the microscope," he explained.
These days, he owns a photography firm, Sparenga Photography, which shoots portraits of people and pets and sells his pictures of chemical compounds.
But he'll never forget that his unlikely road to art started in a research laboratory.
"That was really the turning point for me getting into the world of photography," he said. "Once I appreciated the skill level it took to take pictures under the microscope, that's when I tried to branch out a little bit."