Larger than life
A boyhood fascination with insects coupled with his masterful lighting ability as a professional portrait photographer led to Levon Biss’ two-year project, Microsculpture. Sam Edmonds gained a fascinating insight.
The secret and minuscule lives of insects is often an alien world to those unaided by powerful microscopes. Our perception of these tiny creatures is usually limited by our mammalian vision, leaving entomologists confined to science laboratories and the labyrinths of dusty museum collections. Microscultpture is a collection of enormous prints and an interactive website that reveals the beauty of these tiny critters while garnering a whole new audience for entomology.
All in the details
For Levon Biss, a British photographer who has been shooting campaigns for international brands for the last 18 years, the decision to undertake a long-term project photographing insects was as much a personal one as it was a practical one. Yet what started out as a series of photographs not necessarily intended for any audience other than himself and his son has since sparked the intrigue of people across the globe, and just two weeks following its launch online, a making-of video detailing the process, along with an interactive website amassed over 5.5 million hits – a popularity that Biss speculates may be attributed to the sheer amount of labour put into these images.
Working on such a micro scale, depth-of-field is somewhere around one seventh the width of a human hair. Each image in the series is the result of around two weeks’ work and thousands of individual images. “I think that people enjoy understanding the process,” Biss says. “They enjoy seeing how the whole thing has been made, and when you tell people that they are made from anywhere between 8,000 to 10,000 images, then people look at them in a different way,” says Biss.
However, working on such a small scale means other complications on top of just depth-of-field. In order to take an insect smaller than your thumbnail and reproduce it visually at several metres in length, the scale, perspective and, most importantly, lighting provide a whole new set of challenges. “At the end of the day, I’m shooting in a different way where I’m breaking the insect down into 30-odd different sections, and I’m lighting each section differently, so that sort of adds another layer of complexity onto the whole thing,” he says. “So, I’ll photograph just the antennae for example, and then I’ll move onto the eye, but because the eye is a different shape, texture, and colour, you’ll light it differently so it’s not just the depth-of-field issue, you also get the shift in perspective as you move across the insect from left to right and up and down.”
But the complications don’t end there. For the Microsculpture exhibition taking place at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History until 30 October, Biss’ prints each extend to several metres in length. A choice that seemed obvious when the objective is drawing the viewer into the micro world, dealing with file sizes that exceed four gigabytes brings its own set of challenges. “The prints are the biggest you can get here in the UK, at least. What we’ve got to is a point where the photographic process I’m working with has gone beyond printing capabilities,” says Biss. “Whereas before you would go to a printer and if you wanted a big print you would say, ‘I have this average-sized file, can you up-res it to make it big’, now a lot of the time I’m having to take one and a half gigabytes off my total file size just so the printer’s computers can rip it. Now it’s gone the other way and we need the printing technology to pick up with the file size,” he says.
Art vs Science
While Biss’ audience has developed into a world-wide following of those intrigued by the aesthetic value of his images, a steady following has also blossomed within the scientific community as entomologists’ typically under-appreciated discipline receives some long-overdue attention from the public. “Scientists like it because I’m highlighting their industry or their world or what their passion is, and I think they seem to pick up on it because we are taking a closer look into that world. They like that their world looks beautiful and that they themselves find it interesting,” says Biss.
Seemingly, the success of Microsculpture is due in part to this balance of art and science – a sentiment that was recognised early on by Biss as he worked with Dr James Hogan of Harvard University when sourcing specimens to photograph. While Biss admits he would usually seek something “with a bit more bling” to entice the viewer, understandably, Hogan’s point of view was more scientific. “James would come at it from the micro-sculptural variance on the insect and how the parts of the insect have evolved,” says Biss. “We’ve got a flightless moth that lives on a tiny island in the Pacific that has no predators. Over time, evolution has meant that its wings have gotten smaller and smaller, and they will eventually drop off. So, he’s picked that because it’s a good example of how evolution is weeding out the parts of the anatomy that we don’t need anymore. He came at it from a scientific point of view, while I came at it from an artistic, visual point of view, and we met in the middle,” he says.
Evidently, the merging of aesthetics and evolutionary traits that is often so axiomatic to the appreciation of species is very much at the heart of Microscultpture, but as Biss discovered, for scientists, the sheer emphasis placed on beauty and detail in this series, something not usually afforded to scientific study, hasn’t gone unnoticed. While most researchers spend their time looking at these specimens under bland, flat light hunched over a microscope, the beautifully lit versions of these species has been somewhat of an aesthetic reprieve for researchers. “The entomologists that I’m working with had never seen anything like this before, and I think that’s the nice thing: that I have people that I really look up to and who I think are amazing people – professors and doctors – they think the stuff I’m doing is special.”
Up close and personal
Despite all this attention from the scientific world, Microsculpture began with very humble and personal beginnings. When starting out on the project, there was no intention to be working alongside world-renowned entomologists. Rather, Biss was simply photographing what was dear to his son. “It started off that I wanted a project that was small and containable. Basically, I started photographing the insects that my boy was playing with in the garden, and from shooting those I started developing a technique to really take this a bit further,” says Biss.
Typically, his personal projects are never seen by the general public, but upon realising the universal appeal of the images, he decided to take the project further. “Fundamentally, I think that people just like stuff that’s interesting – it’s as simple as that. As a society these days, we surround ourselves with dross; of cheap, nasty images. We are saturated with photography. We take pictures without any thought process at all – we snap away on our phones, and photography has become disposable. The actual value of photography is gone. And I think that one of the reasons that people like these pictures is that they see the video, and they see me putting hours, days, weeks, and years into these pictures. And I think that people appreciate that – it’s refreshing to see someone care that passionately about something,” he says.
In a way, it’s this appeal that first sparked the imagination of Biss’ son that seems to be at the core of the Microsculpture project; it’s our curiosity as large, clumsy mammals that makes us seek an understanding of this world for which we usually have no interaction with. “You as a human being at the size and the scale you are, you don’t get to see these things like this normally; we don’t have the facility to see this small, and so what I’m doing is just putting this on a plate for people. It’s really nice to see genuine human emotion to one of your pictures because there’s a lot of hours that go into these pictures, and a lot of times along that way that you think, why am I doing this, but then you see somebody see them for the first time when they’re printed up big. You see their reaction to it then, and it’s all worthwhile.”