What’s Your Niche?: Andrew Paul Leonard, Micrographer
February 24, 2017
Melanoma cells. Leonard rents time on electron microscopes to explore the unseen.
An insect part that Andrew Paul Leonard found in a box in his grandmother’s attic.
Andrew Paul Leonard explains how he uses scanning electron microscopes to create surreal photographs of cells, dust, and other materials that are invisible to the naked eye.
PDN: How did you get started photographing through microscopes?
Andrew Paul Leonard: I started photographing white blood cells through an ordinary optical microscope for a cell count study in biology class at Hampshire College. I was fascinated by the inner beauty of this [microscopic] world.
PDN: When did it become an artistic pursuit?
APL: Around 1984 I found a summer internship at Cornell Medical School where I learned how to use an electron microscope. One of the first things I photographed was a flea that had jumped up and bitten me on the leg. My cat had fleas at the time.
PDN: How did you get the internship?
APL: After I had seen books by other microscopists or micrographers, one by David Scharf, I thought, Hey! I could do microscopy. I called different medical schools, and ended up working [at Cornell].
PDN: What camera gear do you use? How does it work?
APL: Back then, electron microscopes had a cathode ray (TV) screen. You would use Polaroid film [to photograph the screen image]. Since the 1990s, digital image sensors have been incorporated into electron microscopes. That brought down so many barriers in terms of the cost of film, the darkroom time, and the image scanning. I do my own enhancements. Electron microscopes do not see in color. The images are black and white [so] often I’ll shift around the colors until it agrees with me. I use Photoshop for that.
PDN: What gear does it require, besides the microscope?
APL: Laboratory equipment and chemicals to prepare samples, [including] equipment to coat the samples with gold.
PDN: All the samples have to be coated with gold?
APL: Not all of them, but they have to be conductive.
PDN: Do you work with dangerous materials?
APL: The most dangerous stuff is some of the chemicals you have to use to prepare the samples. I will pay a lab to do that for me.
PDN: You don’t own an electron microscope, do you?
APL: No, they cost $400,000 and up, and you have to have the right environment for it.
PDN: How do you get access to the facilities with microscopes?
APL: [I have] extensive training and experience in microscopy, and good relationships with researchers, institutions, and companies. I rent time on the microscopes by the hour.
PDN: What kinds of things are you photographing?
APL: I try to stay ahead of medical research news to identify subjects that might be [in demand] in the future. I [also] see things and wonder: What would this look like under a microscope? I just looked at the surface of some raw almonds I bought at Trader Joe’s and thought: Next time I go to the electron microscope, I’m going to photograph that just to see if there’s something that might be interesting. Maybe the surface texture creates an amazing pattern. Maybe there are mites—some kind of insect. It’s an exploration. Last week I gathered some dust from the top of my medicine cabinet, and yeah, there’s cat hair. But I also found some things that look like alien landscapes on a distant planet. The surprises never end.
PDN: What are the coolest things you’ve stumbled across?
APL: Things that surprise me are beauty you might find in horrible things. For instance, my grandmother had a box in her attic where she stored stuff. Now the box is here in my house, and when you open it up, it still smells like Grandma’s attic, so I wondered: Gee, what’s going on here? I scraped around, took a sample of dust, and found things that looked like Reese’s peanut butter cups stacked up.
PDN: Are you able to identify things you photograph?
APL: Most of the time. I’ll Google dust particles. The Reese’s peanut butter cup things were parts of insects. There were things that looked like rosemary sprigs, which were also parts of insects.
PDN: Do you do work for pharmaceutical companies?
APL: Yes. One of my biggest projects was photographing an artery for the launch of Lipitor.
PDN: Where do you get medical samples for something like that?
APL: Mostly I procure samples from my extensive network of researchers [at institutions] all over the U.S. They include neurobiologists, stem cell researchers, cancer researchers, marine biologists and pathologists.
PDN: What kinds of commercial assignments have you gotten lately?
APL: I am currently working on a series of art prints for a major hotel company. In terms of pharmaceutical assignments, advertising budgets have been cut considerably. Clients are turning to medical illustration because it’s less expensive.
PDN: What do you charge?
APL: License fees are calculated on a case-by-case basis. It all depends [on] scarcity [of the image] and type of usage. [And] electron microscopy can be expensive. Research institutions bill me for sample preparation and microscope rental. It is also time-consuming. It could take weeks and sometimes months [to make] an image to my liking.
PDN: What’s the price range?
APL: It depends on what kind of usage they need. Corporate licenses can range from below $20,000 to well above $100,000.
PDN: How else are you making your living at this?
APL: My company, APL Microscopic, also sells art prints.
PDN: What’s the biggest challenge of this niche for you?
APL: The challenge right now is turning all my files into prints, and storing them, and finding places to exhibit them.
PDN: How much do you charge for prints?
APL: $35 for a small one, and up to $4,000 for one that’s framed.
PDN: How are you promoting yourself?
APL: I finally opened an Instagram account. And I’ve put ads in Interior Design magazine. People are starting to respond.
PDN: Do your images get infringed often?
APL: Yes, unfortunately. My images of stem cells have gone viral on the Internet, and I must regularly police unauthorized uses of my images. [Editor’s note: In 2013, Leonard won a $1.6 million jury award for copyright infringement against supplement marketer Stemtech Health Sciences. The award was recently upheld on appeal.]
PDN: What’s your advice for photographers who want to get into this niche?
APL: You have to really love the science, and enjoy working with microscopes. I had a microscope when I was eight years old. Also, you can’t go into this for the money. It took me years and years to start earning money. Find a day job (doing something different) and budget time to allow yourself to learn [microscopic photography].