Amplifying Life: Macro Photography and Our Vision of Ourselves

An Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis) straddles an unknown flower.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

An Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

By:  Richard Telford

The cover of Grassroot Jungles, Edwin Way Teale’s landmark 1937 book of insect photography and natural history.

In 1937, Edwin Way Teale stunned the reading public, both in the United States and abroad, with the publication of Grassroot Jungles, a book that featured 130 photographs macro photographs of insects in both natural and studio settings. New York Times reviewer Anita Moffett, writing in the December 19, 1937 New York Times Book Review, noted that “these pictures combine fact with imaginative power in depicting the beauty and goblinlike [sic] grotesqueness of the fascinating and almost unknown world to which the reader is introduced.”  The book aptly illustrates the power and dynamic value of macro photography—at once a tool for exploration, for documentation, for education, and for engagement.  Through macro photography, we are given a wealth of concrete, visual detail that would otherwise be imperceptible to us; at the same time, we glimpse with heightened clarity the extraordinary functional complexity of both the individual organism and the dynamic world it inhabits.  If we are lucky, we may likewise see our own place in that world.

A close-up view of the thorax of a male Blue Dasher dragonfly  (Pachydiplax longipennis).  The pronotum, the shield-like cover at top, I covered sensory bristles.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A close-up view of the thorax of a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis). The pronotum, the shield-like cover at top, is covered with fine sensory bristles. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Through the macro lens, we can see the delicate sensory bristles on the pronotum that shields the dragonfly’s thorax, the unfurled probiscus of the butterfly siphoning nectar from summer blossoms. With this heightened visual knowledge, we may come to see the former as a complex network of sensory appendages that can measure speed and direction of flight, temperature, the nearness of prey.  In the latter we may see a simple, flexible, coiled straw, when in fact it is a complex organ with three muscle types, nerves, sensilla, a central canal through which nectar passes, and a branched trachea.  Intuitively we know that the sophistication of such apparatus reveals the unquantifiable complexity of the creatures that utilize them, of the evolutionary process that gave them rise, and of the infinite permutations of form and function and beauty in the natural world.  It is reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s assertion in part 31 of “Song of Myself” that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”  In the magnification of the small, we are reminded of our smallness.  Thus macro photography, in both the acts of creation and consumption, is dynamic—we can simply see and appreciate the heretofore unseen, or we can, through both intuitive and formal deduction and induction, become explorers of the interplay of process, form, function, and beauty.

A Peck's Skipper butterfly  (Polites peckius) inserts its probiscus to siphon nectar from a red clover blossom (Trifolium pratense) while an American bumble bee  (Bombus pennsylvanicus) works its way up the opposite side of the flower.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A Peck’s Skipper butterfly (Polites peckius) inserts its probiscus to siphon nectar from a red clover blossom (Trifolium pratense) while an American bumble bee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) works its way up the opposite side of the flower. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

In a remembrance of Teale written for the Journal of the New York Entomological Society in 1981, fellow entomologist and writer Alexander Klots noted that Teale began his photographic journey “with what today seems a crude and cumbersome apparatus, a big bellows-extension camera and loose flash-powder gun.”  Thirty-three years after the publication of that remembrance, in the time of constantly-evolving digital single reflex cameras, that early equipment seems more prehistoric than crude, a footnote of history rather than a working tool. In his 1962 introduction to Russ Kinne’s The Complete Book of Nature Photography, Roger Tory Peterson aptly summarizes the speed of such changes, writing, “Twenty-five years ago I was rash enough to suggest that nature photography probably couldn’t look forward to more than a 10 or 15 per cent improvement in results.  I believed that this art, craft or sport—call it what you will—had attained near stability.  How incredibly naive!”  Peterson’s realization came amidst the development of cameras “now so sophisticated that they almost think” and “ingenious systems  of synchronization and remote control, fluid tripods, gyroscopic stabilizers and 1,000 other accessories [that] tempt the photographer to mortgage his home.”

How many times has Peterson’s realization of the passage of technological time been reiterated, either spoken or unspoken, amidst the near-complete decline of gelatin emulsion film resulting from digital media’s meteoric rise? It is quite easy to ask rhetorically where we can possibly go from here.  Will some unknown dragon smite digital photography as we know it now?  It seems inevitable, though it is hard to envision precisely how this will happen. Ultimately, does it matter?  Does the process of siezing a time-stopped vision of the natural world fundamentally change as the technology leaps forward?  I don’t think so.

A female Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis).  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A female Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

This past summer, I worked diligently to photograph and identify the host of dragonfly species that frequent the landscape surrounding our 1770 Connecticut farmhouse, a process I documented in an earlier piece I wrote for The Ecotone Exchange.  Through this process, I awakened an impulse in myself that had gone briefly dormant.  Nearly twenty years ago, I purchased a well-worn, heavily-brassed Canon F-1n 35mm film camera, along with a copy of  Henry Horenstein’s excellent Black & White Photography: A Basic Manual.  With these, I taught myself to shoot, develop, and print my own photographs.  I went on to shoot in various formats, including 6×6 centimeter medium format and 4×5 inch sheet film, and worked part-time for several years as a photojournalist in the early 2000s when film was rapidly giving way to digital.

A pair of Dusky Slugs (Arion subfuscus) feeds on the remains of a mushroom at sunrise.

A pair of Dusky Slugs (Arion subfuscus) feeds on the remains of a mushroom at sunrise. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

For the last several years, I had done little photographic work, and all of my serious macro work had been done during what now feels like another lifetime, largely on high-saturation color films like Kodak’s Kodachrome and Fuji’s Velvia. In recent years, sorting through sheaves of old prints, contact sheets, and negatives, I had often wondered in earnest if the feelings of exploration and inquiry and wonder that my early days of shooting film had provided me could likewise be experienced through digital photography.  I wondered if, proverbially speaking, I could go home again.  My work with dragonflies and other subjects this past summer showed me the possibility of doing so, albeit in a different technological context.

While uploading digital images to my computer screen will never capture precisely the feeling of watching a contact sheet of images take visible form in a tray of developer, the gratification of watching one’s vision translate to a physical form is rewarding nontheless. It is likewise hard to ignore the value of photo-imaging software that can facilitate even simple corrections, such as the removal of dust spots, and artistic ones, such as the boosting of an image’s contrast, that take minutes now compared to hours in the darkroom.  Here too, though, there is a duality, as those hours in the darkroom, while often tedious, were often contemplative as well, and they could yield a remarkable intimacy with one’s images—the value of long, close examination, both of film and paper and of oneself.

A late summer White-Faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum).  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A late summer White-Faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Many times this past summer I felt child-like joy as I knelt in deep grass or muck, squinting at the viewfinder to bring a dragonfly’s compound, rainbow eye into sharp focus. I felt the momentary ease of shedding life’s heavier considerations, or at least keeping them distant, intent instead on the image taking shape in the camera’s viewfinder.  Such acts, through photography or otherwise, remind us of what matters, of what is beautiful and complex, of what should inspire awe in us, of what is both transitory and constant.  Too often we are oblivious to such things to our detriment, whether or not we can realize it.

Rachel Carson, in a letter written to Edwin Way Teale on August 16, 1955, expresses precisely this kind of wonder experienced through the photographic process. She thanks him for his “good letter of advice about cameras” and informs him that she “got an Exacta in May.”  She notes, “I am learning by degrees, and am really delighted with the camera, for now even a rank amateur like me can get really lovely results.  Such detail, brilliance, and depth of focus!  The marine subjects are toughest for a beginner, but flowers, mosses, scenes, etc. are more rewarding.  Nevertheless, that camera can look right down through 4 or 5 feet of water and see the bottom—as my eyes can’t.”  Here Carson articulates in plain terms photography’s power—and this is most true of macro photography—to help us see beauty that we otherwise could or, just as often, would not see.

An excerpt from a letter written to Edwin Way Teale by Rachel Carson.  Used by permission of the University of Connecticut Libraries System and the Estate of Edwin Way Teale.

An excerpt from a letter written to Edwin Way Teale by Rachel Carson. Used by permission of the University of Connecticut Libraries System and the Estate of Edwin Way Teale.

Three years later, on May 10th, 1958, Teale would write to Carson to recommend the purchase of a Kilfitt macro lens, the first commercially produced true macro lens available to the general public, capable of producing 1:1 reproduction without the use of extension tubes or bellows.  He explains that it “surely would be of great help getting closeups [sic] of small marine subjects, recording them at full, or a little more than full, life size.”  To place this correspondence in a historical context, less than one month earlier, on April 17th, Carson had written to Teale with what now seems an astonishing level of understatement: “As perhaps you heard, I suddenly find myself writing about insecticides.  I hadn’t meant to, but it seems to me enormously important, and I decided far too many people (including myself only a few months ago!) knew what they should about it.”  Ironically, she adds, “So now I’m into it, but hope to do it quickly and rather briefly.”

In the aforementioned introduction to Russ Kinne’s book, Roger Tory Peterson notes photography’s capacity to create “an exact record of what happened in a particular second.” This capacity has, he notes elsewhere in his essay, both an aesthetic and a documentary value.  In the act of nature photography, macro or otherwise, perhaps what we document most fully is ourselves—our vision of the world  around us and the value we place upon it.  Recording such vision is fraught with aesthetic, moral, and ethical choices.  How much do we intrude on the natural world to capture its beauty?  How do we keep this vision true to its subject?  A quick image search for macro photography in Google yields a host of super-saturated images whose color palettes almost certainly exceed reality.  Do we, as Edwin Way Teale and others have—in great part due to equipment limitations—briefly place insects in the icebox to induce torpor?  Do we bait the wilderness to bring its inhabitants to us?  While these and other choices can define our approach to photography, they also define the ethic with which we approach the natural world.  Thus, the acts of exploration and discovery of the natural world through the camera lens are, first and foremost, acts of self-exploration and self-discovery.  Regardless of the technological era, they always have been and always will be.

The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his correspondence with Rachel Carson, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.

Advertisements

Dragonflies, Humility, and the Conservation of Biodiversity

A female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa). Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

By:  Richard Telford

In 1970, Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “Entomologists fall into two categories:  those who find insects endlessly fascinating and those who would get rid of them.”  Reflecting the controversy at that time over the indiscriminate use of DDT (for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would subsequently issue a cancellation order in 1972) and other pesticides, Peterson suggested that the latter group of entomologists might “eventually wind up working for chemical companies, devising more sophisticated techniques of annihilation.”   The dualism that Peterson notes above, though necessarily oversimplified, is nonetheless reflective of a pattern that extends far beyond the world of entomologists.  Insects have a remarkable capacity to evoke in their human observers both fear (largely irrational and unfounded) and wonder (quite rational and well founded).  In his ground-breaking books on the insect world, Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons (1942), Edwin Way Teale extolled the immeasurable value of the latter response; it required, he argued, only the willingness to slow the pace of our hectic lives long enough to observe a complex and remarkable world we largely overlook.

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), perched on the author's son's tricycle handlebar, consumes an insect taken on the wing.  Note a discarded appendage in the  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), perched on the author’s son’s tricycle handlebar, consumes an insect taken on the wing. Note a discarded appendage in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Few insects offer a more ready source of wonder than dragonflies, which are grouped with damselflies in the order Odonata.  The name Odonata is derived from the Greek odonto, meaning tooth—a reflection of their powerful, sharp-toothed mandibles and maxillae, the paired upper and lower jaws that facilitate quick, efficient consumption of prey.  Dragonflies, which form the suborder Anisoptera, take prey only in flight, often cupping their six barbed legs in a basket-like shape in order to entrap their target; smaller prey is often consumed without landing.  The maxillae contain a pronged inner piece that James G. Needham described in his classic 1929 A Manual of the Dragonflies of North America as “perfectly shaped for a meat fork, used for holding a captured insect and for turning it as the mandibles cut it up.”  The deftness of this process is readily apparent when observing a perched dragonfly speedily consume its prey.  This is just one of a host of evolutionary adaptions that have shaped the dragonfly into the unrivaled aerial predator of the insect world.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings  can create up to 3,000 isolated "cells" in the membrane of each individual wing,  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Dragonflies possess four wings, each of which can move independently of the others and can rotate on a forward and backward axis, yielding a supremely dynamic capacity for flight.  Dragonflies can fly in all geometric planes.  Helicopter-like, they can fly straight up and down or hover in place.  They can fly backward and forward, turn abruptly at acute angles, and repeatedly flip their bodies.  Harvard Biochemist Stacey Combes, leading a team of researchers who have studied dragonfly flight in a specially built enclosure at the Combes Laboratory in Bedford, Massachusetts, has noted that dragonflies can perform hundreds of such flips while hunting, seemingly without significant exertion.  Her team has also documented predation success rates as high as 90 percent in some dragonflies—a truly astonishing figure.  Equally astonishing is the speed with which dragonflies engage in these aerial acrobatics.  Dragonflies routinely fly at speeds of 15 to 30 miles per hour, with some species flying considerably faster.  Credible speed estimates for the Green Darner (Anax junius), for example, range between 35 and 55 miles per hour during straightaway flight.  This prompted Edwin Way Teale, in Grassroots Jungle, to title his dragonfly chapter “Winged Bullets.”

A close-up view of the compound eyes of a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).  The ommatidia, or individual lenses,  are plainly visible.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A close-up view of the compound eyes of a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). The ommatidia, or individual lenses, are plainly visible. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

One other adaption deserving special note is the dragonfly’s pair of bulbous compound eyes, each of which can contain up to 30,000 ommatidia, or individual lenses, each with its own cornea.  The extraordinary perceptive sensitivity of such a structure, in conjunction with the size and placement of the dragonfly’s compound eyes, yields a nearly 360-degree field of vision—a critical adaption that facilitates the flight patterns and the predation success rate outlined above.  The dragonfly’s acuity of sight likewise provides a critical defense against predation.  Furthermore, while the human eye contains three opsins, or light-sensing proteins, dragonfly eyes can possess up to five.  So, while we effectively perceive color through the RGB scale (Red, Blue, Green,) dragonflies can additionally perceive ultraviolet light invisible to humans as well as plane-polarized, or reflected, light.  This latter capacity is clearly valuable to a creature that begins its life in water and is destined to return there; both the female and the male return to the water, the former to lay eggs and the latter to protect her during that vulnerable process.

A female Common Whitetail Skimmer (Plathemis lydia) at the day's end.  Unless disturbed, it will remain there until the warmth of the following day revives it.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) at rest behind the author’s compost pile at the day’s end. Unless disturbed, it will remain there until the warmth of the following day revives it. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Early this summer, toward dusk, I walked out to the compost pile located at the edge of our yard.  Just behind the compost pile, in an overgrown former strawberry garden, I spied a dragonfly suspended by its six legs, wings spread, where it would sleep for the night.  Prior to reading Edwin Way Teale’s Journey Into Summer (1960), I had never thought about the sleep of insects.  In his book, Teale on a number of occasions notes finding insects at rest at twilight or by flashlight during the night.  Teale’s observations of this phenomenon, which had persisted in my mind only in abstract form, took shape before my eyes.  The natural world reminds us that there is so much to learn, or at the least so much to which we can pay attention if we choose to do so.  I stood long at our compost pile, swarmed by mosquitoes and mesmerized by the beautiful symmetry of this extraordinary creature, which I would later identify as a female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia); its stillness at rest contrasted sharply with its swift, deliberate, predatory daytime flight.  I hastily fetched a camera and tripod and, with long exposure times, took several photographs.

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched in a group of bearded irises.  Copyright:  Richard Telford, 2014

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched in a group of bearded irises. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

From that moment, influenced in part by recent time spent reading the correspondence between Rachel Carson and Edwin Way Teale housed at the University of Connecticut’s Dodd Research Center, and in part simply by a sense of wonder and appreciation, I have spent the summer photographing the dragonflies that hunt the cleared half acre of our old farm property.  All of the photographs that accompany this writing are the product of that effort.  As I do summer chores and projects, I keep near at hand a tripod-mounted camera with macro lens affixed.  While I sense that I have seen a greater variety of dragonfly species this summer than I can recall seeing during any of the previous ten summers spent in our 1770 farmhouse, I suspect this is not true.  Instead, this perception may simply result from, in Teale’s words, my choice to “pause like [a] stooping giant to peer down into the grassroot jungle at [my] feet.”

This female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa) repeatedly return to this perch during a long sequence of hunting flights.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

This female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa) repeatedly returned to this perch during a long sequence of hunting flights. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Recently, our local state roads have been lined with advertising signs for a regional Mosquito Squad franchise.  The signs promise, “No Bugs. No Bites. No Kidding.”  It is an unfortunate echo of Roger Tory Peterson’s statement above.  Several years ago, Lynne Peeples, writing for the Huffington Post, reported on mounting criticism that Mosquito Squad’s marketing use of a superhero-like cartoon character, Dread Skeeter, targets children and obfuscates both the human health and environmental risks inherent in spraying neurotoxic chemicals for insect control.  At a time when pollinating insect populations are suffering catastrophic declines, so much so that the White House just today issued a press release outlining the problem and proposing a course of mitigating actions, we must rethink our relationship with the insect world.  A world with no bugs and no bites is likewise a world with no biodiversity, and that is a world in which even the human species cannot survive.  In 1937, Edwin Way Teale wrote, “We cannot ignore the insects; we cannot dismiss them as insignificant.”  In 1970, Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “[…] insects, because of their astronomical numbers, are undeniably important in our lives.  They cannot be ignored.”  Still, more than 50 years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, we struggle to accept the notion that our co-existence with the rest of the natural world cannot be negotiated on our terms alone.  Where Dread Skeeter succeeds, dragonflies, which rely principally on mosquitos and small gnats for survival, will vanish, and each loss of this kind precipitates a cascade of other such losses—another lesson that we have been slow to learn.

A female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the obelisk position.  Some dragonflies assume this position to reduce the percentage of body surface area that is exposed to the sun, effectively cooling them.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the obelisk position. Some dragonflies assume this position to reduce the percentage of body surface area that is exposed to the sun, effectively cooling them. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Recent research on dragonflies has revealed an extraordinary dimension to their hunting.  Rather than pursuing its prey, a dragonfly intercepts it, meaning that it must calculate the distance, speed, and direction of its target, adjusting its own speed and direction accordingly.  In this context, the predatory success rates of dragonflies documented at the Combes Laboratory are even more impressive. While its superb capacities for flight and vision certainly facilitate this action, it is a complex set of neurological functions that makes such sophisticated targeting possible.  This complexity, much of which we do not yet fully understand, should give us pause.  According to the fossil record, dragonflies have existed for nearly 300 million years, a fact which can perhaps begin to give us insight on this complexity.  Teale argued in 1937 that humans have “lived on earth but a single hour in comparison to the long history of the insects.”  The implicit humility of this statement is critical to the long-term preservation of the insect world and of biodiversity itself.

A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).  Copyright:  Richard Telford, 2014

A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014