A Curiosity for the Micro World: Q&A with Isamu Sawa
Join CCP and Isamu Sawa as they discuss his visual art practice, which focuses on the details to be discovered in the micro world, as evidenced in his Without Water and Remnants series. Explore Issey’s technical mastery of the technique known as ‘focus stacking’, whereby he takes up to 120 images before combining them to produce a single, crisp and extremely detailed image in uniform focus. The technique is more common to the scientific community, for example NASA’s Curiosity rover employs focus stacking to take microscopic images of Martian geology using the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI).
About the Artist
Born in Japan and raised in Australia, Isamu Sawa is one of the country’s leading commercial photographers, having first been inspired to pick up a camera at age nine by his late father, the photographer Peter Sawa. Based in Melbourne, ‘Issey’ has been working as a professional photographer for over 20 years, building a reputation by shooting for international brands including Mercedes Benz and Penfolds. His portraits of famous faces, including Jean-Paul Gaultier and Cadel Evans, have been published widely from Vogue to Vanity Fair.
Increasingly focusing on his visual art practice, Issey exhibited Two Generations – Two Views with his father at Joshua McClelland Print Room in 1999, while his work has also been included in numerous group exhibitions since 2013.
Exploring a particular fascination with the micro world, Issey’s most recent solo exhibition, Remnant, was staged in 2019 and brought into focus what he describes as the “worlds within worlds [to be found in] the densely layered chaos of a time-worn craftsman’s bench.”
Remnant was the highly anticipated follow up to Issey’s debut solo exhibition, Without Water, which he is re-staging for the inaugural CCP Photo Fair. This series of dying flowers and plants began as a technical exercise in early 2015, and was inspired by his wife Basia, a florist. In order to properly capture his diminutive subject’s decaying beauty he adopted a sophisticated photographic technique more commonly used in science than art, known as focus stacking. For example, NASA’s Curiosity rover is able to take microscopic images of Martian geology using its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). When a close-focus view of a rock or mineral particle is not possible over the entire image, MAHLI takes a series of images in up to eight focus positions. Onboard software then merges them to create a single ‘best-focus’ image. Similarly, Sawa sometimes takes up to 120 images of a plant before combining them using computer software to produce a single, crisp and extremely detailed image in uniform focus.
The technique is painstaking and highly time-consuming, requiring incredible patience, precision and technical ability. But it results in images of staggering beauty, rich in almost otherworldly botanical detail.
As Sawa collected more of his wife’s discarded stock, shooting them in between commercial work in his Collingwood studio, he began experimenting with different forms and plant structures.
Issey explains, “These are special images for me. There’s a tremendous amount of precision that goes into each and every one. But more importantly, they’re just so captivating. I feel like I’ve rescued these discarded flowers, in a way, and given them another life.”