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Feature - issue #5

Small Wonders

Words by Bryony Dixon

If we think of the cosmos, an image might form in our minds of a solitary genius gazing up to the infinity of space through a telescope, a scientist, Galileo perhaps. So too, we might see such an individual staring down through a microscope, to the infinitesimal spaces of the microcosmos. Our solitary genius in this case might be F. Percy Smith. This enthusiast for the natural world and the revolutionary opportunity that early moving pictures offered to science, revealed, with inestimable patience, the strange universe of tiny life forms that exist beyond the range of the human eye.

Smith’s career started in the very early days of film when, demonstrating how he had photographed the tongue of a fly, he came to the attention of an enterprising film producer called Charles Urban, who knew a prodigy when he saw one. Smith, a keen naturalist and microscopist, leapt at the chance to leave his job at the Ministry of Education to tinker with cameras - and an impressive range of homemade paraphernalia - the better to educate the public about the invisible world under their noses.

The photography of natural phenomena is a question of light and time. Smith’s micro-cinematography was simple but required enormous patience and attention to detail. He could spend two years making a timelapse film of flowers opening, shot at one frame per hour then sped up to appear like a series of sudden explosions. His film, The Birth of Flower, has been entrancing audiences since 1910, and his forays down the microscope in films like An Aquarium in a Wine Glass, shot in 1926, opened up an outlandish world of tiny infusoria.

It is strange how similar the phenomena of the very large and the very small appear: the corona of a sun’s eclipse and the wall of a single celled organism; a supernova and a starburst of fungus; the giant cloud of a distant nebula and a suspended mass of frogspawn. And when these miniature entities don’t resemble galaxies and celestial bodies, they are the stuff of sci-fi, so alien they could only be from another planet: forests of strange pod structures, the gleaming pin-headed shapes of mushroom-lifeforms, neither animal nor vegetable, writhing clusters of trumpet animalcule and tentacle-headed hydra.

There is an apparent randomness about these things floating in what looks like nothing, and while we know they must be governed by gravity and time and light, those complex variables are the domain of the scientist and patient observer - we can just admire the aesthetics and gaze in wonder for a moment at their life’s work.

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Still images taken from the meditatively immersive film Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (Lucky Dog/Studio Moe/BFI 2016). Images courtesy of BFI National Archive.

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