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Canadian photographer and physicist join forces in new D-Day microphotography project

Posted by in Photography on Monday, February 10, 2014

Scanning electron micrograph (greyscale) coloured with energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy chemical analysis of a sand grain from Omaha Beach. The purple is a mixture of rare-earth metals, including lanthanum, neodymium and cerium. The green is sodium chloride (salt). The yellow is silicon dioxide (quartz). (Photo: Donald Weber and Kevin Robbie)

It’s difficult to imagine that a beach filled with windsurfers and sun-worshippers once hosted one of World War II’s bloodiest battles.

But a Queen’s University physicist and one of Canada’s top international photographers are working on a project that reveals traces of the battle are all over the beaches — they are just too small to see with the naked eye.

Photographer Donald Weber and physicist Kevin Robbie are working on a photography project examining miniscule grains of sand from the beaches of Normandy. They are looking for the tiny scraps of evidence leftover from D-Day, the 1944 joint allied invasion that marked the turning point that led to the eventual victory over Nazi German forces.

Optical microscope image of a complete microspherule from Omaha Beach. (Photo: Donald Weber and Kevin Robbie)

“It really was a true collaboration between an artist and a scientist,” Weber says. As he combed the beach in search of photographic opportunities on a macro-scale, the only Canadian among the 22 photographers that make up the elite VII Photo Agency, he gathered sand samples and sent them back to Robbie in Kingston, Ont.

Robbie then took the project to the miniscule level by putting the grains underneath the lens of equipment like an electron microscope with a high-resolution camera worth half a million dollars. Among ordinary sand grains and organic matter, the microscope revealed rounded spheres of iron no larger than a period on a printed page. Although these microspherules are sometimes produced after the metal is liquefied from meteorites exploding in the upper atmosphere, they can also occur with bomb and artillery explosions.

“Some of them stuck to each other in midair,” Weber says.

Scanning electron micrograph of the interior of a fractured steel microspherule from Omaha Beach, likely formed by rapid solidification of a liquid droplet of steel created by the explosion of an artillery shell. (Photo: Donald Weber and Kevin Robbie)

The results are scattered all across the beaches of Normandy, especially on Omaha beach which played host to a particularly large battle.

“In my work, I’m always looking at small things that I don’t see other than through the electron microscope, so it’s neat for me to see a bit of history,” Robbie says. “The remnants of this battle over 60 years ago are still sitting around in the sand.”

The project is a true collaboration between art and science, displaying coloured microscopic photos of iron leftover from the Second World War. “(Weber) sees these tranquil beach scenes and, using the microscopes, I can see the shrapnel in the beach sand,” Robbie says.

Although they’ve already shown some of their work at a photo-reporter festival in Saint-Brieuc Bay, France, the project is still very much in progress. Weber is planning another trip this spring armed with a camera-equipped drone to capture the beaches from the viewpoint of the invading forces.

Robbie is also interested in seeing if he can tell the difference between axis and allied steel. “A lot of the answers are just hidden from view in the beautiful landscapes that (Weber) takes,” he says.

But there’s certainly no rush. As Weber points out, “these sand grains are probably not going to last for 100 years. They are going to last for 100,000 years.”

  Comments (3)

I am fascinated by this project and the technology, but confess to being a bit disappointed that they are photographing material from Omaha Beach (American forces) and not Juno Beach (where the Canadians landed). I do hope they get there as part of this project.

Submitted by Tim Fletcher on Thursday, February 13, 2014

I agree completely with Tim Fletcher. Juno beach needs all the publicity it can get.

Submitted by Doug Milton on Friday, February 14, 2014

Hi - Actually, all five beaches are in the midst of being photographed. During my initial trip to the Normandy beaches in May 2013, I collected hundreds of samples from all the beaches. As you can imagine, sorting through hundreds of samples and trying to find microscopic bits of shrapnel can take days, weeks and in fact now months to sift, sort, scan and photograph. I wanted to start with Omaha Beach as it was the most bloodiest battle, experiencing not just artillery from air and sea, but intense fighting on the beach as well. Also, Omaha is the most confined in terms of the geography, and every stretch of the beach was used in the fighting. Juno, Gold and Sword are essentially all attached and not all spots on the beach experienced any fighting. Trying to pinpoint locations where intense fighting occurred or artillery assaults happened are all very sketchy in terms of information. Omaha, with it's small stretch of sand, and confined space meant I could walk the beach up and down at low and high tide and know that I covered the entire distance.

As a Canadian, Juno beach is next on the list of sand to be sorted and photographed... stay tuned there is a lot more work coming.

Submitted by Donald Weber on Monday, February 17, 2014

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