Meet your invisible roommates

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Microscopes reveal amazing portraits of household insects

Daniel Kariko's photos include boll weevils, carpet beetles, moths, ants and earwigs

CNN  — 

Photographer Daniel Kariko uses tweezers to pose his subjects. The creatures he photographs aren’t exactly what you might call photogenic.

Other possible ways to describe them: scary or fascinating. Also, beautiful.

“They kind of look like characters you might meet in the cantina scene in ‘Star Wars,’ ” Kariko said.

Whatever you think of his subjects, Kariko’s photos reveal the faces of our invisible roommates: common household insects.

Since 2012, Kariko has been creating amazing portraits of tiny monsters many Americans live with every day, including boll weevils, carpet beetles, moths, wheel bugs, ants and earwigs.

His equipment isn’t what you’d expect. He mashes up art and science by using equipment from a university lab: a stereoscopic microscope and a sophisticated scanning electron microscope.

Photographer Daniel Kariko

“Not too many people are working with this kind of approach,” said Kariko, an assistant professor of fine art photography at East Carolina University.

The result has been the creation of more than 50 images, many of which are stunning in their color and detail.

“That’s what first attracted me to this,” he said. “With the naked eye, you see the insect as brown bug. But when you enlarge it, you really see the wonderful colors that come from the process.”

As the project progressed, he began to experiment with how the light from the lab equipment played off the insects.

The light is inspired, he said, by paintings from some of the Dutch masters like Johannes Vermeer.

“It’s a fun project, most of all,” Kariko said. “They’re meant to be sort of tongue in cheek.”

In a nutshell, here’s how he does it:

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    Kariko may happen to find a dead insect at home or in his office. Choosing it as a candidate for a portrait, he’ll bring it to a campus lab and place it on a holder under a stereoscopic microscope with a digital camera mounted on top of it.

    Under LED lights, he’ll use tiny tweezers to pose the insect. This takes a steady hand.

    “You have to watch how much caffeine you have, to make sure you’re very calm,” Kariko joked.

    Next comes the really cool part.

    Kariko places the mounted insect into a vacuum chamber so it can be imaged under a scanning electron microscope.

    Scientists use scanning electron microscopes to look at some of nature’s smallest objects. Traditional microscopes use lenses to magnify objects. Scanning electron microscopes scan objects with beams of particles called electrons – which are smaller than atoms – to create super-magnified images of very tiny things.

    Later, Kariko combines images from the two microscopes to create his final product.

    It takes 15 to 25 hours to make each photo, he said, depending on the insect.

    Coming face to face with insects that we share our homes and workplaces with might get a conversation going, Kariko said. That conversation, he hopes, might help strengthen the bridge between the worlds of art and science.

    Daniel Kariko is a photographer based in Greenville, North Carolina. His work is also represented on LensCulture.