Extreme Close-Ups of the Pills You Pop
Everyday medicines explode into crystals under the microscope
At the first sign of a headache, most of us pop pills without hesitation. We get on with it, satisfied that medicine will see us through. Photographer Maurice Mikkers was less happy to blindly follow the instruction on the box; when he wound up on painkillers he fixated on his prescription. What is this stuff? What does it look like?
Unable to venture into work, Mikkers was self-quarantined in his home with nothing to kill but time and his illness. Through meticulous trial and error the he discovered that he could capture the crystalline essence of the pills cluttering his medicine cabinet.
Microscopy kept him so entertained through his sickness, he continued the experiments long after returning to full health. Micrograph Stories is his ongoing visual journal of tablets’ trippy innards.
Idle curiosity alone didn’t create an amateur chemist. Mikkers was a lab tech before becoming a professional photographer. Straight out of university he went to work in the parasitology lab of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, in Bilthoven, Netherlands.
The job was all he’d worked toward — it met his desire to help people and exercised his scientific curiosity but, still, he found himself wanting more. The lab work was fascinating but the lab was a controlled space condusive, of course to hard science not free-wielding art.
“It is hard to be creative in such an environment,” says Mikkers “Everything is, and must be, controlled by protocols at all times. I figured out for the first time in my life that my creative mind was telling me to set it free, and to continue with all my side projects I was working that time.”
Micrographs are just one example of how Mikkers merges the expressive and critical hemispheres of his brain. Side projects have always served as vital creative outlets.
A disciplined approach, an informed and practiced methodology and a voracious appetite for knowledge are just some of the key ingredients to Mikkers’ success with Micrographs. These things combined saw him through some grueling test runs.
Preparing samples for photographing was rarely easy. His initial forays using simple compounds to establish baseline procedures went well, but things quickly grew complicated.
“To be honest, I still have not figured out how to properly crystalize all kinds of dissolved medications,” he says. “A lot of them don’t work because they just don’t seem to dissolve and crystalize in demineralized water, or just don’t give me the visual representation I’m looking for.”
Each prospective sample is crushed to powder in mortar and pestle and weighed out in uniform measurements. The powder is increasingly diluted to afford a wide selection of material to shoot. Applying heat speeds up the evaporation process and seems to yield more aesthetically appealing crystals, but slides still air dry under Mikkers’ scrutiny. Favored results are duplicated to create an experiment group.
After calibrating both the camera and the microscope Mikkers fires off frames at different ISO and speeds, adjusting the angle of the slide for different perspectives on the crystalline structures. Once satisfied, he shoots in HDR a comprehensive grid of the entire sample. The images are stiched together later in digital post production.
Throughout, the entire workflow, Mikkers adheres to something akin to rigorous scientific method — samples are tracked in Excel. Meticulous notes are kept. Control groups are maintained. Like all good science, he wants to be able to repeat the process and, hopefully, the results.
“It is mind-blowing to see crystals form live in front of you on a microscopic scale, like when I was using Tartaric acid for the first time,” he says.
During his tenure as a technician, Mikkers logged hours peering at slides but his lab rarely had cause to make micrographs. He didn’t even have a microscope when the idea to photograph pills struck.
After a lot of Internet research, and a lot of considering expense, Mikkers bought a serviceable trinocular so that his camera and his eyes could all see the sample at the same time. Better yet, the scope’s third ocular was fitted with a universal mount which connected to his Canon without modification.
But it wasn’t just plug and play. The camera saw samples at a different resolution than his eyes, and the quality of the sensor picked up distortion when shooting through the scope. It took more experimentation and a lot of minor tweaks to calibrate around visual aberrations. Trying to figure out cross polarization and dark-field illumination was another headache routed by testing long exposures. The workarounds are fine for photographing crushed up pills but further fixes were necessary for Mikkers to film microscopic organisms.
Mikkers journey to becoming a professional photographer was a long one.
He borrowed cameras to take to the zoo as a teenager, but the prohibitive expense of film kept that fledgling interest from growing. The internet was much more accessible. He got into successively more complex programing languages and delved into web design. The coding side was fine but he needed good visuals, and decided the best course of action was to create his own.
“I made a lot of websites for local businesses,” he says. “I liked being creative so much that I decided to take the next step with photography. So I used part of my savings and money that I earned by making websites to buy my first digital compact camera.”
As high school gave way to university Mikkers continued to hone his chops through online tutorials and camera upgrades. When he realized that life in the lab wasn’t fulfilling he turned his existing design work into a portfolio to apply to schools. He quit his job, bought a Mac and a Canon 5D, and moved to The Hague, ending up in an interactive media and design course.
Mikkers got into the habit of carrying his camera everywhere documenting his time on campus. The department head took notice, and when the class traveled to Amsterdam for an event he asked Mikkers to act as the official photographer.
That day was the accidental beginning of a new career. At the event small teams competed to invent creative solutions to social issues, judged by executives from some of the top ad agencies and design firms in the Netherlands. The school began to tap Mikkers for photography assignments, and eventually he started picking up corporate gigs as well. Most of the work was events coverage, and he knew that clients wanted real-time images to use on social media. His response was Photodispatch, a streaming tool similar to a TV news feed.
“I was in my final year and I needed a graduation project,” says Mikkers. “This was the project to go with! It fits all the criteria for the study to go with and and it combined my passions photography and technology.”
He introduced the first pilot of this concept during the 2010 TEDxAmsterdam event — the biggest TED event in the Netherlands.
Luck followed Mikkers after his diploma was in hand. A former girlfriend who returned to South Korea put him in touch with a start-up who needed a photographer who could also function as a creative director for their branding. He was flown overseas and spent several months getting the company off the ground, the first big job of a steady stream of work.
Everything ground to a halt when he wound up stuck at home taking painkillers. But the downtime and the experience of making micrographs made him focus on what he wants to do next. He has further designs on microscopic imagery and wants to get into slit-scan photography.
“Being sick gave me the time and opportunity to rethink who I am and where I wanted to go. A recap and rethinking of the last few years was a good thing to do, and needed after years of commissioned work,” says Mikkers. “I came to the conclusion that the combination of my previous studies and today’s passions needed to be combined.”
All images: Maurice Mikkers