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The Independent Collector

IN SUMMER last year, this ladybird was scurrying over tussocks of grass on the cliffs of Ballard Down, Dorset. Now it is a work of art - a triumph of nature and electron microscopy.

Giles Revell, a photographer and former geologist, captured it in a jamjar, killed it in his deep freeze, dehydrated it in alcohol - then spent a month scanning it bit by bit, joining the scans by computer. The result is a giant, 30in by 40in black-and-white pigment transfer on to art paper of a minutely detailed ladybird.

Ink with a non-fade life of 75 years has recently been developed - which means that Revell can produce saleable images of insects blown up to 12ft by 9ft, using an Iris ink-jet printer.

He uses a scanning electron microscope instead of a light microscope - electrons instead of photons - because its magnifying power is greater, and it produces a three-dimensional effect.

It can magnify up to 50,000 times. The ladybird is magnified a mere 50 times before processing. "It has a lot of form," says Revell. "Real surface relief."

He has also produced prints of magnifications of a woodlouse and a grasshopper, and an X-ray of a skate fish. "I was interested in recording everyday insects that we never think twice about," he says, "in order to reveal how complex they are. The ladybird's feet are like little brushes and its underside is completely covered in tiny hairs that lie evenly, as if they have been combed."

Revell, 33, was introduced to light microscopy of minerals while training as a geologist. He worked for two years with the British Geological Survey before embarking on a career as a photographer in advertising. "I also read a lot of books on natural history. They got me thinking."

The Natural History Museum's microscopy department told him how to use chemical fixatives to preserve dead insects, and put him in touch with the Royal Holloway University, which allowed him to use its pounds 60,000 scanning electron microscope.

The insects need to be dehydrated - otherwise the vacuum in which electrons are fired at them would cause them to explode. The vacuum also ensures that air molecules do not impede the trajectory of the electrons. The image is in fact created by electrons emitted from the surface of the insect as the electron beam hits it.

The dead insect is coated in gold for maximum conductivity - like a tiny, gilded pharaoh in a vacuum-packed sarcophagus.

It can take up to two days to lay out an insect. Revell's aesthetic sense dictates that it should lie with legs and antennae symmetrically placed, not sticking out at all angles. "The trouble," says Revell, "is that they don't die tidily. I want to see them as symmetrical forms. The positions I put them in are not completely forced. They do pull up their legs symmetrically in real life - when resting on a leaf, for example.

"But they are very brittle after dehydration. You can spend a day arranging an insect with pins and prods - and then a leg falls off."

It takes even longer - about a month, working six to eight hours a day - to join 75 6in-by-7in electronic scans seamlessly by computer, to produce the complete picture. The computer file is then printed on to art paper.

If Revell ever succeeds in producing an electronic blow-up of a moth, his art will have reached its apotheosis. As soon as you touch a dead moth, its hair and the scales of its wings begin to fall off. "There must be a way," he says.

Prices: pounds 3,000 plus VAT in editions of seven from the Michael Hoppen Gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3 (0171-352 3649). The gallery will be exhibiting Revell's work in May and June 1999