The Diatomist is a short documentary about Klaus Kemp, master of the Victorian art of diatom arrangement.
Diatoms are single cell algae that can be found virtually anywhere where there is standing water. Drains, ponds, bird baths, that’s where they live, invisible to the naked eye until the discovery of the microscope. For protection, the tiny organisms create a glass-like shell around themselves, almost like they are living jewels. During the Victorian era, microscopists would arrange diatoms into elaborate and kaleidoscopic patterns—think of it as a rough equivalent of building a ship in a bottle, but with some of the tiniest microorganism to be found on Earth. Their meticulous works, marrying art and science could only be viewed under a microscope.
Since he was a teenager, Mr. Kemp has devoted his career to creating stunning diatom arrangements and is acknowledged as the last great practitioner of this artform. Matthew Killip’s exquisitely beautiful short film The Diatomist showcases his incredible work.
I’m really interested in the way people interact with the natural world (I’ve previously made a series of short documentaries for UK TV about working relationships with monkeys and apes. I’m also a huge admirer of the Victorian naturalists ... So I was very excited when I recently saw my first Diatom arrangements, by the German master JD Möller (1844 - 1907). The arrangements really embody that beautiful combination of art and science one can find in the period, and I loved seeing the hand of man display the work of nature so beautifully. The overwhelming variety and intricacy of diatoms can’t help but recall Darwin: “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
I was very curious to see if anyone still practiced diatom arrangement and also to find out how it was done. I managed to track down Klaus Kemp in the UK—he’s really the only person doing this to a professional level (he’s able to make a living from a small base of collectors) - and filmed with him for one afternoon in December 2013. During the filming Klaus told me all the Victorian diatomists took their secrets to the grave, so there was no accurate information on the practice when he first started, aged sixteen. It has taken him years to be able to create these stunning microscopic slides of arranged diatoms, and although The Diatomist is a modest short film I hope it does some justice to what really is Klaus’ life’s work.
All diatom arrangements and photographs by Klaus Kemp. Soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bernard Herrmann and Cults Percussion Ensemble.
Matthew Killip is an English filmmaker living in New York. His documentaries have been broadcast on UK television and exhibited in festivals around the world including Sundance and True/False.