Can art help save the world from insects?

This article is part of our final special section on museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


For most people, insects are an annoyance, sometimes frightening. They are creatures to be punched with one arm, crushed with one foot or, in the extreme, to be annihilated with pesticides.

But Levon Biss, a macro photographer who takes extreme close-ups of very small subjects, and curators and scientists at the American Museum of Natural History see the world of insects in a radically different way: essential to life on earth, in endangered and – in too many cases – endangered.

An exhibit starting in June, based on Mr Biss’s work, will highlight 40 insects, some already extinct and others considered endangered, some being bred in the lab so they can be returned to the nature. Among those that make an appearance are the monarch butterfly, nine-spotted lady beetle, puritan beetle, Hawaiian hammerhead fly, Mount Hermon beetle, and San Joaquin flower fly. Most of the models in Mr. Biss’ photos were selected from more than 20 million specimens that are part of the museum’s archives.

Mr. Biss’ camera shows them in an entirely new way, using a technique that magnifies the tiny details of their tiny 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. Mr. Biss, who is also the author of “Microsculpture: Portraits of Insects”, has seen his work exhibited in numerous museums in Houston, Copenhagen and beyond.

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

“The exhibition has to be beautiful for people to care about it,” she added. “Most of us have never seen insects presented like this. Levon’s photos are beautiful, bizarre, and so detailed in ways most of us would never have imagined.

Over the past 24 years, Mr. 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.

How did you become interested in this type of photography?

Macro photography started for me in 2012 with my son, Sebastian, who found an insect in our garden. We looked at it under the microscope and I was blown away by the detail. I was unhappy with the work I was doing at the time and wanted to produce images that had meaning again. I was aware of the conversation about insect decline, biodiversity loss, and habitat loss, so I started researching and realized that my pictures could be more than just pretty pictures.

What exactly is macro photography?

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

What were the challenges encountered during the development of this show?

How do you present tiny little insects that are usually locked away in cabinets that are difficult to see and study, or are seen poring over a microscope, exciting and visual so that audiences can find them interesting and educational? We could not select the most beautiful species, but the 40 images were chosen for their state of conservation. Many of these specimens are over 100 years old.

What was your specific process?

The majority of the images were made from over 10,000 separate shots per insect and took around three weeks each to create. I usually work on three images at a time. While I’m photographing an insect, I have a bank of computers processing footage from the previous week’s shoot, while other computers are used to retouch and construct the image of the insect I photographed two weeks ago. There can be 25 different sections for an insect, and each of these sections can consist of more than 500 separate shots. Once these individual sections have been flattened so that they are fully focused, they are put together like a puzzle to produce the final image.

What do you hope to accomplish with these images?

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 impressed by their beauty, but also to be damn sad about why they’re being put in front of them.

What’s it like working with organizations that no longer exist?

Knowing that an insect will never exist on this planet again, primarily due to human influence, is heartbreaking and moving. And it’s humiliating. As an artist, that’s what drives me to make this image as good as possible.

Why did you choose the ladybug as the show’s key image?

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

Was there a bug you included that surprised you?

The Lord Howe Island stick insect, native to an island off the coast of Australia and thought to have been extinct for decades. A breeding pair was found, and they have been successfully breeding them ever since. This is one of the positive aspects of this exhibition. We show that with intervention, there are opportunities to reverse insect decline.

What do you think the next generation will do?

The next generation grew up with these problems and with climate change as a life factor. They are more aware and in harmony with the environment than my generation. They are well educated and knowledgeable. They are ready to meet these challenges. I hope that as they grow up to be decision makers, they will steer us in the right direction.

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