If you asked me the secret for winning the Hilda Canter-Lund competition, I would answer: “be a male marine biologist, living or working in the southern hemisphere and with a professional interest in seaweeds”. I would then offer the data on which I based this conclusion to anyone teaching a basic statistics course who wants a good example of the danger of over-interpretation of a small dataset. There have been exceptions to every one of the criteria I list (Lira Gaysina, 2011 winner, ticks none of these boxes, for example) but it is still a useful starting point for wondering what it takes to create a great image of algae.
Lira Gaysina: Blue-green necklace – Trichormus variabilis (2011 winner).
Gender (five of seven winners are male) is almost certainly chance association rather than a causal factor as is, probably, the southern hemisphere link (again, five of the seven) but the tendency towards marine macroalgae may not be. I do the initial sift of entries with two colleagues in order to produce the shortlist and it is clear from this that there are fewer really good entries that feature microalgae. This, in turn, may reflect a bias within the phycological community towards the study of seaweed (I haven’t done any analyses to support or disprove this) or it may simply indicate that photographing microalgae is intrinsically more challenging.
There is a category of prize-winning images that fulfil Henri Cartier-Bresson’s maxim of the “decisive moment”. Tiffany Stephen’s image this year falls into this (see “Hilda Canter-Lund prize winner 2016”) as does Mariano Sironi’s from 2009. In both cases, the photographer grabbed an opportunity as it was presented to them. The skill lay in framing the image and there was a minimal need for subsequent manipulation beyond, perhaps, cropping to enhance the composition. Both could, potentially, have been taken on a camera phone as the end-product was dependent upon the “eye” of the photographer as much as on his or her equipment.
Left: Mariano Sironi: Southern Right Whale and calf swimming through a green tide (2009 winner); Right: Tiffany Stephens: Swell Life (2016 winner).
At the other end of the scale we find images such as those of Chris Carter (2013) and John Huisman (2014), both of which are the result of very careful preparation and planning. The subject matter, in both cases, is at the border between the micro- and “macro” worlds, and both photographers have had to overcome the very shallow depth of field that is available to a microscopist. This can be achieved using image stacking software but there is an inevitable loss of spontaneity. Such images require care, patience and deep understanding of the tools available. Many of us take usable images of the microscopic world; I suspect that few of us really devote the time that is necessary to produce a truly stunning image.
Left: Chris Carter: Chara virgata (2013 winner); Right: John Huisman: Herposiphonia (2014 winner).
The shallow depth of field introduces a second problem that besets microscopists: presenting their organisms in a context to which the viewer can relate. An image of an organism against a plain background may be fine for an identification guide, as the viewer’s attention can be focussed entirely on particular characteristics of the organism that are necessary in order to name it. But it does not tell us a story about where it lives, or how it interacts with the organism with which it shares a habitat. Look at the great works by the 19th century Impressionists: their pictures are always rich in extraneous detail, yet this detail is crucially dependent upon the depth of field that was available to this generation of painters, due to an understanding of perspective acquired during their formal training. As Impressionism gave way to post-Impressionism depth of field was sacrificed in pursuit of a more schematic articulation of form before, in the early 20th century, form itself was dumped in favour of abstraction.
Abstraction, however, presents a conundrum within the context of the Hilda Canter-Lund competition, as the brief is for an image on a phycological theme that combines informative, technical and aesthetic qualities. Travel too far down the road to abstraction, and the image ceases to be a representation of a living organism (as Hilda Canter-Lund’s own images always were) and, instead, becomes a collection of shapes and colours. A useful question to ask of a picture before submitting it to the competition is whether you can step back from the image and tell a story about why the alga that is depicted grows where it does. It may be a great image. It may channel the spirit of Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. But if you can’t put it into context in the real world, then it is probably not appropriate for this particular competition.
More on this topic in a future post.