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.

Before Rachel Carson

Edwin Way Teale's ground-breaking article published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before Rachel Carson began serializing Silent Spring in The New Yorker in June of 1962.

Edwin Way Teale’s ground-breaking article published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before Rachel Carson began serializing Silent Spring in The New Yorker in June of 1962.

By Richard Telford

When Rachel Carson contemplated the writing of Silent Spring, it was naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale to whom she wrote to see if he thought what she later termed “the poison book” was viable; he encouraged her, and their correspondence would continue throughout the writing of the book that would so profoundly change the landscape of American—and global—conservation. Teale was acutely aware of the need for such a book, as he had written a ground-breaking article on DDT published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before the serialization of Silent Spring would start in The New Yorker in June of 1962. In his article, Teale painted a dire picture of the potentially catastrophic results that indiscriminate DDT use would wreak on the natural world. Even the magazine’s editors dedicated a full page of commentary to Teale’s article, noting, “We commend for serious and mature consideration the leading article in this issue of the magazine. It is, we believe, significant in thought and implication, even beyond the subject it discusses—the new insecticide, DDT.”

In his article, Teale, while acknowledging the critical role of military use of DDT in the European and Pacific Theaters during the Second World War, expressed the fear that “lackwit officials after the war […] will be off with yelps of joy on a crusade against all the insects.” Such a crusade, Teale argued, would produce “effects [that] would be felt for generations to come.” He continued, “A winter stillness would fall over the woods and fields. There would be no katydids, no crickets, no churring grasshoppers or shrilling locusts, no bright-winged and vocal birds. Trout and other gamefish, poisoned by the DDT or starving as the insects disappeared, would die in the lakes and mountain streams. Wildflowers, in all the infinite variety of their forms and shades, would gradually disappear from the openings and the hillsides. The landscape would become drab, clad in grays and greens and browns. […]. No drought, no flood, no hurricane could cause the widespread disaster that would follow in the train of the annihilation of the insects.” The parallels to the opening chapter of Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” are striking.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), one of the "bright-winged and vocal birds" that Edwin Way Teale feared would be silenced by indiscriminate use of DDT.  Rachel Carson likewise feared a "spring without voices." Photo Copyright 2012, Richard Telford.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), one of the “bright-winged and vocal birds” that Edwin Way Teale feared would be silenced by indiscriminate use of DDT. Rachel Carson likewise feared a “spring without voices.” Photo Copyright 2012, Richard Telford.

This is not to suggest that Rachel Carson stole what should have been Edwin Way Teale’s thunder as a prominent crusader against the indiscriminate use of DDT; there is no evidence to suggest that Teale himself ever held that view. On the contrary, their correspondence suggests the opposite. Instead, the object lesson here is that one individual cannot, through his or her own isolated efforts, cause seismic shifts in public thought, policy, and action, environmental or otherwise. Instead, the profound shift in the public’s view of DDT suggests that only a complex bulwark of thought and action, built through the efforts of many “voices in the wilderness,” can allow for one voice to fully articulate, facilitate, and subsequently come to represent such a profound change.  Street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment” seems aptly applicable here. This does not in any way diminish the work that Rachel Carson did. On the contrary, it illustrates her capacity to capitalize, both consciously and unconsciously, on the opportunity latent in that groundwork laid beforehand. This she did to the great benefit of generations to follow but at great cost to herself personally and, in some circles of thought, to her long-term legacy.

In his 1958 book Darwin’s Century, anthropologist and gifted natural history writer Loren Eiseley argues the presence of just such a pattern in Charles Darwin’s development of his theory of evolution. Eiseley painstakingly elucidates the influence on Darwin of the work of many scientists and great thinkers who preceded him, such as Gregor Mendel, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, James Hutton, Sir Charles Lyell, and others, as well as the work of his contemporaries such as Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace. Essentially, Eiseley argues, many components critical to evolutionary theory were already established at the time Darwin set off on the H.M.S. Beagle. However, none of his predecessors or contemporaries “saw, in such a similar manner, the whole vista of life with such sweeping vision.” Because of this, Eiseley concludes, “Darwin’s shadow will run a long way forward into the future.”

It is important to note that, aside from Teale, there were other early, prominent critics of the indiscriminate use of DDT, including American essayist E.B. White, as well as Richard Pough who, among his legion accomplishments in land and bird conservation, served as the Nature Conservancy’s first president. White had written passionately against the indiscriminate use of DDT in the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker in May of 1945, citing both Teale and Pough as sources. Carson would later write to E.B. White in 1958, suggesting that he write an article addressing concerns over the proposed spraying of DDT to control gypsy moth populations on Long Island. He declined to do so but suggested that she might write it herself for The New Yorker, setting the stage for the subsequent serialization of Silent Spring in the magazine four years later.

After Rachel Carson’s death in 1964, E.B. White, in a tribute written in “Talk of the Town,” clearly recognized her role in centralizing and giving prominent voice to the mounting concerns over indiscriminate DDT use. He wrote, “She was not a fanatic or a cultist. She was not against chemicals per se. She was against the indiscriminate use of strong, enduring poisons capable of subtle, long-term damage to plants, animals, and man. No contributor to these pages more effectively combined a warm passion for nature’s mysteries with a cool warning that things can easily go wrong.”  Rachel Carson had captured and later came to represent a decisive moment in the twentieth-century conservation movement.

Of great interest is the fact that the work of the early DDT critics may have gone unnoticed by Carson. In a footnote to her 1997 book Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Linda Lear notes that “there is no indication that Carson knew of White’s 1946 editorial when she wrote her 1958 letter to him.” Similarly, Sidney Landon Plum of the University of Connecticut has noted that there is likewise no clear evidence that Carson read Teale’s 1946 article in Nature Magazine. This may be hard to conceive of in 2014 in our highly digitized, instant-access society, but it is not so hard to believe in an American society preoccupied with the violent rise and costly defeat of the Axis Powers. It is also quite possible that Carson did see one or both pieces, especially given the prominence at that time of their respective authors and publications; the evidence of this, if it ever existed, may simply be lost to time. In the end, though, it hardly matters. The lesson is the same. If we wish to advocate for the environment, and by doing so advocate for ourselves and future generations, we must recognize our potential roles in constructing a bulwark for meaningful change. No contribution to that bulwark is too small.

Like Pough and Teale, and to a lesser degree White (who is now remembered largely for his children’s books and selected essays, and little at all for his environmental advocacy), we must realize that we, as contributors to the larger bulwark, will inevitably fall in the shadow of prominent figures like Thoreau or Darwin or Carson. This, however, does not diminish the importance, even the necessity, of the slow, steady, and often forgotten work that precedes meaningful change. Cartier-Bresson coined his phrase from a statement he attributed to seventeenth-century French Cardinal de Retz: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”  These decisive moments are not flashes of brilliance absent of context.  We can all contribute to them and, to the degree that it is possible, must endeavor to do so.