I spent early 2020 in a UC Riverside lab filming hummingbirds, trying to come up with new techniques for capturing their movements and behavior. The pandemic ended that; in mid-March we had to leave the university, and the whole state locked down.
Normally I live with four other housemates; that grew to eight. It was sort of an impromptu commune and a wonderful time. We all really bonded, and I got to reconnect with folks I hadn’t spent much time with when I was on the road eight or nine months a year.
I have a fellowship from National Geographic and the Rita Allen Foundation to study jellyfish. Initially it was to be a global project: flying to Japan, visiting aquariums, filming and photographing in the ocean. But even before COVID-19, I had been preparing to do more work at home, in a detached garage I use as a lab. I had set up a tank with guidance from Steve Spina of the New England Aquarium, and he FedExed me jellyfish. So in quarantine I focused on one species of moon jelly (photo, top), trying to coax all of their secrets out of them in front of the camera.
By midsummer, the tank was getting a little dirty, so I cleaned it—and the polyps in the tank, the early life stage, began to transform. I walked in one day and saw a little brown structure standing out against all these white polyps! This metamorphosis is the basis of my whole jellyfish project, showing how their bodies change shape in response to age and stress. Over time I learned to trigger the process: I pop a jar of polyps in the fridge for two weeks, and after that, they will transform into baby jellies. Now I can re-create experiments I’ve read about in research papers, describing how jellyfish are able to reverse their age back to polyps by reorganizing the tissue in their bodies. I don’t have a lot of confidence that I can pull this off, but that’s what I’m trying to capture in images.
In quarantine, when I didn’t have the access to tools or the bandwidth to work on photography, I poured my energy into cooking and gardening. Our household went through at least 200 pounds of flour baking bread; it was a little out of control. And I’d start every day with a book and a cup of tea in the garden, where it’s like you blend into the landscape. I had birds landing on me, and a raccoon walked over my feet.
This has always been the lesson of the garden: If you actually succeed in controlling it to the degree you want to in the beginning, the result is boring, ugly, and clearly contrived. It’s like that in photography.
Passing a Trial by Fire (Ants)
“Would you like a job? I need a photo of fire ants, clumping together to form a raft in a puddle of water.” Susan Welchman, a formidable and exacting photo editor, was offering a 2011 assignment to Anand Varma, who until then had only assisted veteran National Geographic photographers. With what they’d taught him, Varma felt ready to tackle the assignment. He told Welchman yes.
When a fire ant colony gets flooded, the ants hook their feet to other ants’ bodies to create a buoyant mass, taking turns above and below the waterline. That’s the view Welchman wanted.
At a Georgia Tech lab, Varma scooped ants into shallow water in a glass tank, watched the ants clump, and took scores of photos. Welchman rejected them as no better than amateur shots she’d seen. “I screwed it up,” Varma recalls thinking; he imagined waiting 10 years “for everybody there to forget who I was” before Geographic would hire him again.
Go back, Welchman told Varma. Try again.
His shots through the side of the tank flopped because water “forms this little lip, the meniscus, against the glass, and it creates this out-of-focus band,” Varma says now. How to fix it?
A lab technician showed Varma a glass coating that would prevent the meniscus from forming. Now Varma’s photographs had “a very crisp edge” at the waterline. Welchman liked that but told him, “You need more ants.” He put in more ants.
The assignment was for two days; Varma went back for a third. That’s when he captured the remarkable scene and earned high praise from Welchman: “This is what makes a photograph worthy of National Geographic.” —PE
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