Blame it all on Levon Biss and his TED talk. Inspired by his son, Sebastian, Levon related his experiences making really large photographs of really small things over several years. After watching his talk I said to myself, “I can do that.”
That launched me on my ongoing macro photography journey. Rather than me blathering on about all the technical details, I urge you to take a look his TED talk. It’ll only take about seven minutes out of your life. Grab a glass of wine and enjoy.
As has been noted many times on DS, digital photography has allowed us to separate the photo from the photo-graph. Before the age of digital photography, photographs were displayed on some sort of physical medium – glass, plastic, paper – but nowadays we almost always view photos briefly on some sort of display, usually a LED screen. Yet something is lost in this experience when compared to viewing a photograph permanently displayed on some sort of medium, analogous to the difference between reading a physical book or reading an eBook. A permanent display allows us to take our time and appreciate the photograph, much like a painting on a canvas or a fresco on the ceiling of a cathedral. This presentation gives a sense of intimacy to the experience that a video display or a slide show cannot. This is one reason we have museums and art galleries.
It was important for Levon to present his photographs on permanent media, and it was important that these photographs be large so that the intricacy of his insects’ exquisite designs, only revealed at the sub-millimeter scale, could be appreciated by humans who visualize detail at a much larger scale. Macro-photography allows us to appreciate a previously inaccessible world.
I had the camera, the lights, the programmable stepping motor, and all the software I needed to piece together a single large image from a few hundred smaller ones, but I didn’t have any really small things to photograph. Taking my cue from Levon, I decided to photograph insects, but I didn’t have access to the insect specimens from the Oxford University of Natural History Museum that he had. So I looked online.
The first thing I learned is that not all insect specimens are created equally. Most specimens I first obtained were unfit for photography. I learned that they must first be posed and mounted to look as natural as possible. In doing so, I damaged or lost appendages as often as not. They were small and fragile. I was clumsy. There is a whole process that I would have had to learn to prepare an insect for photography. Being the lazy sort, I looked around for help.
Enter Lawrence Forcella, the self-proclaimed God of Insects. Lawrence lives somewhere in Maine and has a degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, the same school where my daughter earned her MBA in Fine Art a decade and a half ago. Lawrence collects insects, lots and lots of insects. Among other interesting natural specimens, he dabbles in seed pods. Last I heard, he was cleaning the bones of a moose that he intended to mount. I wasn’t interested in the moose, but I was interested in his insects. Here is his website.
Lawrence provided all the insects I requested, mounted and ready for photography. And so my photographic quest began in earnest. I began making photographs of insects that were between 1/2 and 4 inches long. Typical photographs were synthesized from between 100 and 500 individual pictures. The finished photographs consisted of between 100 and 300 Mp. The process took anywhere from two hours to two days per photograph, nearly as long as the lifespans of some of my insects. My image processing wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as was Levon Biss’, but it met my needs.
One of my larger macro photographs is that of a Walking Stick (216 Mp). I had it printed on a sheet of mylar 40″ x 60″. It hangs on a wall of my house in a stairway that leads to our second floor.
Another of my first macro photographs was that of a Hawk Moth, its existence predicted by Charles Darwin some four decades before its actual discovery. You can read the story here. As an aside, my wife grows Angraecum sesquipedale, aka the Darwin orchid, which inspired Darwin’s prediction of the Hawk Moth’s existence.
Now came the hard part. How to display many of these creatures so they could be appreciated at one’s leisure? Since the walls of our home were already covered with my daughter’s artwork and many of my other photographs, I had to look elsewhere.
Recently, technology has been introduced that enables photographs to be printed on thin aluminum panels as large as 40″ x 60″. Such photographs are ideal for outdoor display. So, with some help from my wife I decided to create a “Jurassic Insect Park”. My over-sized insects, and a few giant flowers and seed pods that I installed to nourish them, would find a home along a walkway designed by my wife that meandered among the many stones and trees that covered our front yard.
After looking around at various mounting options I decided on the aluminum A-frames used for displaying menus on sidewalks outside of restaurants. The largest I found measured 30″ x 40″, ideal for my walkway displays. The first insect to be introduced to our Jurassic Insect Park was an American Honey Bee. It was followed by a number of other insects and an Asian pitcher plant.
We have just begun to populate our Jurassic Insect Park. The process will take a bit more time. Turns out that some of these critters are hard to corral! But given that the Jurassic period lasted over 55 million years, we have a little time. If you are ever in our neighborhood, stop in and see how we are progressing.
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