PDN Photo of the Day

Seeing Insects as Sculpture

Photography elevates its subjects, calling our attention to things we might otherwise overlook. This is particularly true for microphotography, which allows us to scrutinize details unseen by the unaided eye. Photographer Levon Biss found a way to use microscopy, lighting and painstaking digital compositing to capture the surprising and complex structures of insects. He shows us not only exotic varieties but many insects that look plain and homely when you find them in your backyard or on a windowsill.

Biss’s book, Microsculpture: Portraits of Insects, published recently by Abrams, features more than 140 color images he made of specimens in the collection of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Among his subjects are specimens collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of the HMS Beagle and Alfred Russell Wallace, who introduced the theory of natural selection. Biss photographed each insect using a high-resolution camera and a microscopic lens. To get tack-sharp focus while working with the lens’s shallow depth of field, he had to photograph a single specimen in 30 to 40 sections, generating between 8,000 and 10,000 stacked photos with different focus points. Biss would set up his strobes, then photograph an antenna, a leg or one portion of the exoskeleton at a time, then refocus and rearrange his lights to capture an adjacent section of the body. Dr. James Hogan, the curator of the museum’s entomology department, explains in the book’s foreword that a single insect took weeks to photograph. But each of Biss’s final, composited images shows the texture and intricate contours of an insect’s body. Hogan speculates that the dimples and ridges on some of the insects may be an adaptation to their environment, providing camouflage or insulation, or keeping water or dirt from penetrating their shells.

Brief captions accompany images of full insects and close-ups of details, providing enough information to allow the reader to imagine how each trait helps the insect to adapt to its environment. Black backgrounds and Biss’s use of backlighting highlight fine details like the spikes on insect legs or the fuzz on the shell of a trench beetle. The images may inspire wonder at evolutionary adaptation, but the book can also be enjoyed simply as a celebration of beauty. A nonspecialist looking at the book’s luscious color reproductions might marvel at iridescent exoskeletons that appear to be made of hammered metal or finely woven metallic mesh. Hogan writes, “This collection of photographs is a celebration of nature and photographic art, but it also shows how science and art can be effectively combined to produce something new and exciting.” —Holly Stuart Hughes

Related Stories:
A Bug’s Life
Roman Vishniac’s Poetic Photomicroscopy
What’s Your Niche? Andrew Paul Leonard, Micrographer (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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