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November 21, 2013

Tears under a Microscope

Basal tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

Occasionally…. very occasionally amid the deafening ‘noise’ of irrelevant blogs, tweets and posts, I stumble across a real gem, a testament to the power of human curiosity and creativity. Rose-Lynn Fisher’s microscopic study, The Topography of Tears is one such gem.

Inspired by her own “period of personal change, loss and copious tears”, Fisher was curious about whether tears of grief looked different from tears of joy and laughter. Not content with just being curious, she photographed 100 tears using a standard compound microscope. Many were her own tears. Some were from friends and at least one from a baby. Her conclusions were not just scientifically interesting, but poetic; her writing is as good as her photographs and it is worth reading her description of the project.

Laughing tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

Science divides tears into three categories:

  • Physic tears such as grief and joy, which are triggered by extreme emotions
  • Basal tears which the eye releases continuously in tiny quantities as a corneal lubricant
  • Reflex tears in response to irritants such as onion vapors and dust.

As most people know, tears are in essence salt water, but they also contain a variety of oils, enzymes and antibodies. Physic tears, for example, contain hormones such as prolactin (associated with milk production) and the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin which acts as a natural painkiller when the body is under stress.

These different molecules account for some of the differences that Fisher photographed. In addition, the circumstances and setting of how the tear evaporates determines the shape and formation of the salt crystals so that two identical tears can look entirely different close up.

So much for the science!

For Fisher, tears are more poetic and “evoke a sense of place, like aerial views of emotional terrain……..a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series is alike an ephemeral atlas”. Like Fibonacci numbers, Fisher sees a repetitive pattern in tears similar to the earth’s topography. ” I marvel….how the patterning of nature seems so consistent, regardless of scale. Patterns of erosion etched in to the earth over millions of years may look quite similar to the branched crystalline tears of an evaporated tear”.

Onion tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

“It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean. “

Tears of grief, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

What I particularly admire is that Fisher translated what started as idle curiosity into substantive action with  a result that is as beautiful as it is interesting. The idea is ingenious, but the execution is relatively simple, easily within the realm of the average family.

I would encourage you to try this experiment at home and send us your resulting images. After all, the Holidays is a time of extreme emotions all round, when tears of joy and grief abound.