Monday, August 10 — Speaker, Walt Carlson


It’s a small world after all. No one knows that better than Walt Carlson.

Carlson, a Cookeville resident and member of the Cookeville Camera Club, has found a way to help people understand what’s beneath their feet and in the tiniest of everyday things.

Walt & microscope
Walt with his camera attached to the microscope.

Growing up in Indiana, Carlson spent much of his life in the home furnishings business learning all aspects from manufacturing and marketing to sales and advertising. When he retired he and his wife Becky chose Cookeville as their new home due to the beauty and affordability of the area. The diversity of activities in the Cookeville area was an added bonus.

“My wife joined the camera club,” says Carlson. “I got her a 35mm camera for Christmas.” Later, Carlson found a reason to learn about photography for himself.

Carlson ran across the book,”A Grain of Sand-Nature’s Secret Wonder” by Dr. Gary Greenberg. Greenberg had taken photos of minute objects through a microscope using a process called photomicrography. Greenberg is noted for his invention and development of high-definition, three dimensional light microscopes used in the process. Carlson was so intrigued by the book and the photos he just had to learn to do it for himself.

“I have an attraction to the ocean,” Carlson explains. “Seeing those grains of sand up so close was amazing. One photo showed a grain of sea salt that looked like it had been cut precisely by a mason.”

Carlson decided to join the camera club himself. Commandeering the microscope his son, a marine biologist, had used in college, Carlson learned to use the camera and the microscope to make his own photographs.

“It took a lot of trial and error,” says Carlson. “I found some adapter lenses online that fit into the barrel of the microscope. Using special software, I use the computer to focus. The microscope acts as a lens.”

Carlson says light is his greatest challenge with the photographs and plans to get a dissecting microscope with built in lights that light the subject from the top. Even with the biological microscope he currently uses, the results are stunning.

Carlson is thrilled with what he sees under the microscope. “It’s amazing what you can’t see in nature. It’s wonderful and so beautiful. There are colors and textures we can’t imagine. What’s under your feet is mind boggling.” Carlson insists that these grains of sand and small objects are the “architects of nature,” the building blocks on which larger things exist.

Bringing these things to light, Carlson gives us glimpses of the small world we are all part of.

Dandelion florets and pollen - 8x magnification through the stereo microscope.
Dandelion florets and pollen – 8x magnification through the stereo microscope.

Carlson has recently expanded his work in photomicrography to include teaching others what it’s all about. He has been a featured speaker at Nature Fest at Tennessee Technological University for the past two years and has done workshops for the Junior Rangers program at Burgess Falls. They have fun looking at a photo and trying to guess what the object is; it helps explain the process. He finds the enthusiasm of the young participants so rewarding he wants to continue the programs for them-and for their parents.

“I tell parents that for what they spend on video games for their child they can get them into photomicrography,” he says. “That gets their attention. It’s a great way to stimulate parent/child interaction.” Carlson says it’s “a way to give back” since he didn’t get to spend as much time as he would have liked with his own children as they grew up due to his job. He believes it’s important to encourage parents to find a way to connect with their children, and he wants to see them use this method. Carlson says he’s also planning a future workshop for enthusiasts like himself. He references “Microbe Hunters,” an online publication for microscope enthusiasts, as a good way to find information on the subject.