v5.4 / Howard Lewis & the Nature of Particles

With COVID in the air, the last thing you might want is a closer look at the world measured in microns. But hovering in the backscatter and in shafts of skylight are curiosities worth the inspection, if you have the tools. In “The Nature of Particles,” photographer Howard Lewis repurposes “optical scraps” from a broken telescope to magnify the only lively companions many of us have in quarantine: floating motes of dust, dander, and flakes of dead skin. 

For comparison’s sake, I felt I had to see what the less-angelic side of this microcosm looks like. So I searched for images of the coronavirus at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online. Seen through a transmission electron microscope, the virus (on the left) looks like the painted dots in France’s Chauvet Cave (on the right), rendered negative. Which is to say, it looks earthier than the dust in Lewis’s photographs. Or is it that the dust is just more celestial in its unseen state? 

In these images, effulgent lint unfolds like origami birds (#48, Feature Image). Or it skates across lakes of empty space, a Lutz here, a triple Salchow there (#33 and #46). In procreative moments, the particles beget sacred geometries, as in Joan Miró’s The Birth of the World (#47).  

Is this what they call apophenia? When the psychiatrist Klaus Conrad coined the term in the late fifties to describe schizophrenic behavior, he was referring to the “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness.” Under pandemic conditions, who doesn’t see unmotivated connections?

“The Nature of Particles” was made in quarantine. It was born of introspection and hard looking—something we’re all doing a lot of right now. Of course, with so much darkness obscuring the view, seeing things clearly takes time. Be that as it may, “looking hard isn’t just about looking long,” says art critic Jerry Saltz, “it’s about allowing yourself to be rapt.” 

That’s exactly what is happening in “The Nature of Particles.” Behind this work, I sense a photographer who has allowed himself to be rapt. And if a little photographic rapture is what you need, you’re in luck. It’s contagious, in a good way


#2 © Howard Lewis

The Nature of Particles series consists of abstract photographs of ordinary particulates that we observe in our everyday surroundings as floating fragments seen in shafts of light. The genesis of this concept revealed itself earlier this year from a combination of circumstantial and cognitive sources, as precautions and ultimately self-quarantine measures took hold in New York due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With an interest in art and science, I was left to interior observations which felt like harkening back to a time of DaVinci or Thoreau and detached observation of nature. My Nature of Particles series allows a safe distance for one to contemplate both positively and more recently, negatively, what could be happening below the threshold of unaided human sight. I capture the particles in motion. These tiny spheres seem to whirl in unseen eddies, roil in orbits, settle in spots and move on to circulate on invisible flowing currents of air.

#3 © Howard Lewis

I use this commonplace occurrence to explore interesting visual possibilities that might remind us of a starry sky, or finely stirred deep ocean sediment, or even as a visual immersion within a stream of flowing bubbles. The scale is intentionally left unknown by providing no familiar object for comparison. It is left to the viewer’s imagination to wonder if the image could be the bright spots in the Milky Way or atoms seen through a high-tech microscope.

#33 © Howard Lewis

To capture the particles in motion and at their scale, I worked with specks of dust about 40 microns wide, at the limit of what we can see without the aid of lenses. (By comparison, a grain of beach sand is about 100 microns and the Coronavirus is .14 microns in size.) Our environment has always been full of floating particles, some harmful and others innocuous. Household dust is a combination of materials like hair, skin flakes, and dander.

#46 © Howard Lewis

The dust particles photographed were sifted so the finest round dust could be grouped and positioned on various custom-made surfaces depending on my photographic intent. Using small air blowers, I controlled and moved particles in short, timed bursts providing the appearance of motion. Lighting was achieved from daylight filtered through large heavy glass optical scraps salvaged from a huge old demolished telescope. The light rays arriving from our sun 90 million miles away streamed through large 12-inch diameter pieces of old lenses and, acting like a warped magnifying glass, provided the light that gave a twisted, structural, and unique quality to the particles and image.

#47 © Howard Lewis

These well-placed light waves aimed on the surface of particles, combined with modern photographic technology, were used to create images reminiscent of the imaginative worlds these old lenses were originally designed to discover, and then captured with macro lenses on a digital camera. This process takes full advantage of current lens design combined with lighting to narrow the points of focus to the intended particles and then seamlessly transition the viewer to other parts of the images revealing motion and direction.

Introduction © Collier Brown. Feature text © Howard Lewis.