My previous post on this subject (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”) considered the dichotomy between the “decisive moment” – the spontaneous recognition of the potential of a view to become a great image – and the painstaking preparation – and post-production work – that is often necessary to produce a really stunning image of the microscopic world. In this post, I am going to take a step backwards, then approach the topic of photographing algae from a different angle.
Let’s take as a starting point a desire to simply provide a good representation of an alga in order to convey some essential information that allows someone else to recognise or name that organism. You might try to simplify the background to throw the subject into sharper definition, and you will aim to get as much of the organism in sharp focus. You will also try to offer the viewer an indication of scale, particularly important when dealing with the microscopic world. A good example of such an image which made the shortlist in 2010 is Chris Rieken’s image of the desmid Micrasterias radiata. You would be very pleased to open a guide to desmids and find an image as clear as this to help you identify your own specimens.
Left: Chris Rieken: Micrasterias radiata Prox (2010 shortlisted image); right: Petr Znafor: Freshwater phytoplankton dominated by desmids (2016, co-winner).
Compare Chris’ image with Petr Znachor’s image which won a prize in 2016. Both are of desmids, but they are very different. Chris has focussed on representation of the organism and has produced a beautifully crisp image whilst Petr has used the fact that some of the desmids in his image are not in sharp focus to create an aesthetically-pleasing pattern. It is still, recognisably, of desmids, and you may be able to name the genera, yet it is harder to say exactly what species are present. The two images, in other words, illustrate a tension between representation and abstraction that runs through many of the winning and short-listed entries of the microscopic world (Lira Gaysina’s image of Trichormus variabilis, shown in my earlier post, also demonstrates this tension.
Günter Forsterra: Octopus’ Garden (2015 winner)
Günter Forsterra’s winning image from 2015 illustrates another direction that images of algae can take. He photographed marine macroalgae – several orders of magnitude larger than the microalgae discussed in the previous paragraph –but, like Petr Znachor and Lira Gaysina, he was not aiming to create a technically-perfect image that would allow a viewer to name the organisms present. Instead, he takes us into another world, one that is hidden to all but a small number of initiates. The temptation is to refer to the underwater landscape portrayed by Günter as “surreal”, but this term has a precise meaning in cultural studies (relating to the interface between dreams and reality) should not really be applied haphazardly. I prefer to the term “other worlds”, recognising that his image conveys an impression of a different, altogether stranger, world than most of us have ever experienced.
Conceptual diagram of the tensions inherent in algal photography. Scientific illustrations, designed primarily to inform, sit at the top of the pyramid; moving away from straight representation towards either of the other corners creates images with greater aesthetic value but, perhaps, at the cost of information.
There are, in other words, at least two tensions that can work on an image of an alga to create an aesthetically-pleasing image; I’ve summarised these in the diagram above. Chris Rieken’s image would lie close to the apex of the triangle, with “representation” predominant; Petr Znachor’s image would lie closer to the “abstraction” corner, whilst Günter Forsterra’s is in the opposite corner, “other worlds”. All of the images that are submitted can fit onto this triangle somewhere; the question is how these tensions are balanced to raise a straightforward representation of an alga into an image that combines informative, technical and aesthetic properties and creates a work of art.
Neither “abstraction” nor “other worlds” are unambiguous concepts; both require an interaction with the viewer. To someone familiar with freshwater algae, Petr Znachor’s image is clearly of desmids, and many will be able to identify the two genera that are present (Cosmarium and Staurastrum). However, someone who knows little of algae will just see a collection of colours and shapes. The boundary between representation and abstraction, in other words, is fluid; the viewer is never neutral and, for this reason, the legend becomes very important, providing a bridge between the image and the viewer. In a similar way, Günter Forsterra’s image could appear, to the uninformed, to be something from a science fiction movie. Again, the legend acts to locate the image firmly on Planet Earth and, hopefully, to raise awareness of the importance of algae to healthy marine ecosystems.
Eileen Bresnan: Chaetoceros chaos (2010 shortlist). An example of a very abstract depiction of an alga.
Depiction of “other worlds” is harder for those of us who study the microscopic world, due to the problems associated with shallow depths of field (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”); microscopic images, as a result, tend towards “abstraction”. However, it is not just the shallow depth of field that is an issue here: we also have to consider the disruption caused to a microscopic ecosystem caused by the sampling process, and then as it is teased apart, squashed onto a microscope slide and viewed at unnaturally high light intensities. That is why I prefer to use paints to recreate the microscopic world in situ. The results are, I know, partially the result of my imagination but, then again, everything that we view down a microscope is, to some extent, manipulated and artificial.
This post, and the previous one, have focussed less on how to take a great photograph than on what makes a great image. I hope that it inspires you to go out and have a go. We’ll come back to some of the technical issues in microphotography in a future post.
More about the Hilda Canter-Lund competition can be found here