Can art help save the insect world?

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Can art help save the insect world?
Levon Biss, who specializes in macrophotography of insects. A show based on his work at the American Museum of Natural History illuminates the insect world in a radical way: essential to life on earth, endangered and — in too many cases — headed for extinction. Elli Biss via The New York Times.

by Alix Strauss

NEW YORK, NY.- For most people, insects are an annoyance — sometimes, a frightening one. They are creatures to be smacked off an arm, stomped with a foot or, in the extreme, obliterated with pesticides.

But Levon Biss, a macrophotographer who shoots extreme close-ups of very small subjects, and curators and scientists at the American Museum of Natural History see the insect world in a radically different way: essential to life on Earth, endangered and — in too many cases — headed for extinction.

A show opening in June, based on Biss’ work, will highlight 40 insects, some of which are already extinct and others that are considered imperiled, including some that are being raised in labs so they can be returned to the wild. Among those making an appearance: the Monarch butterfly, the nine-spotted ladybug, the Puritan tiger beetle, the Hawaiian hammer-headed fruit fly, the Mt. Hermon June beetle and the San Joaquin flower-loving fly. Most of the models for Biss’ photos have been selected from more than 20 million specimens that are part of the museum’s archives.

Biss’s camera shows them in an entirely new way, using a technique that magnifies the tiny details of their minuscule beauty to enormous proportions. For now, the exhibition, with photographs as large as 54 inches by 96 inches, will be housed in the museum’s Akeley Gallery and the adjacent East Galleria. Biss, who is also the author of “Microsculpture: Portraits of Insects,” has had his work displayed in an array of museums in Houston, Copenhagen, Denmark, and beyond.

“People usually come here to see all the creatures they love; the elephants, the dinosaurs, the blue whale,” said Lauri Halderman, the museum’s vice president for exhibition. “We had to think differently about doing an exhibition about insects. They’re not charismatic, and they’re always in the wrong place, like inside our apartments.

“The exhibition needs to be beautiful in order for people to care. Most of us have never seen insects presented like this. Levon’s photos are beautiful, bizarre and so intricately detailed in ways that most of us just never imagined.”

For the past 24 years, Biss, 47, has also done commercial work and advertising campaigns, photographed sports icons and filmed documentaries. He grew up in London but now lives and works in a small village in the English countryside.

In a phone interview, he discussed his work and the upcoming exhibition, which opens June 22. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How did you become interested in this type of photography?

A: Macrophotography started for me in 2012 with my son, Sebastian, who found an insect in our backyard. We looked at it under a microscope, and I was blown away by the details. I was unfulfilled by the work I was doing at the time, and I wanted to produce images that had a sense of worth again. I was aware of the conversation about insect decline, biodiversity loss and habitat loss, and so I started researching and realized that my images could be more than just pretty pictures.

Q: What exactly is macrophotography?

A: You’re looking at things on a microscopic level, photographing subjects at a magnification greater than life-size. I work with microscope lenses, a DSLR camera and an electric hand-built rig I’ve created.

Q: What were some of the challenges in putting this show together?

A: How do we present tiny little insects that are usually encased in cabinets that are hard to view and study, or are viewed by hunching over a microscope, exciting and visual so the public can find them interesting and educational? We weren’t able to just cherry-pick the most beautiful species — rather, the 40 images were chosen for their conservation status. Many of these specimens are over 100 years old.

Q: What was your specific process?

A: The majority of the images were made from over 10,000 separate shots per insect and took approximately three weeks each to create. I usually work on three images at once. While I photograph one insect, I have a bank of computers that are processing the images from the previous week’s shoot, while other computers are used for retouching and building the insect image that I photographed two weeks prior. There could be 25 different sections for one insect, and each one of those sections can be made up of over 500 separate shots. Once those individual sections have been flattened down, so they’re fully focused, they are joined together like a jigsaw puzzle to produce the final image.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with these images?

A: I want to raise awareness of the insect decline crisis and have conversations to help the public understand that we need biodiversity in the insect world. I want people to be in awe of their beauty but to also be damn sad about why they’re being put in front of them.

Q: How did it feel to work with organisms that no longer exist?

A: To know an insect will never exist on this planet again, primarily because of human influence, is upsetting and emotional. And it’s humbling. As an artist, it’s the thing that drives me on to make that picture as good as it can be.

Q: Why did you choose the ladybug as the key image of the show?

A: We wanted to start with one specific, iconic insect known to most people. The fact that this insect is included in an exhibition on extinction, or the idea its existence could be threatened, should be shocking.

Q: Was there an insect you included that was a surprise to you?

A: The Lord Howe Island stick insect, which is from an island off Australia and was thought to have been extinct for decades. A breeding pair was found, and they’ve been successfully re-breeding them since. It’s one of the positive aspects of this exhibition. We’re showing that with intervention, there are opportunities to reverse insect decline.

Q: What do you think the next generation will do?

A: The next generation has grown up with these issues and with climate change being a factor of life. They’re more aware of and harmonious with the environment than my generation. They’re well educated and knowledgeable. They’re ready to take on these challenges. I’m hopeful that when they grow up to become the decision-makers, they will steer us in the right direction.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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