The British photographer, Levon Biss, shows us a hidden world of insects, which we would rarely get an insight into, if it weren't for his stunning microscopic photographs.
“If you give a person a pleasurable experience by viewing an insect, then you have their attention and then we can start having a conversation about insect decline and biodiversity loss.”
Can you please introduce yourself?
I’m a photographer. Some say artist, but I prefer photographer. My work is focused around natural history, mainly macro based. Sometimes it stretches between macro and microscopy photography.
There’s a hidden world that we live in and that we don’t necessarily appreciate because of its size. It’s no one’s fault. It’s a world that is hard to access due to its microscopic size. I focused a lot on insects, but I do other work too. I do botanical work and I’m working on molluscs at the moment.
Why have you decided to portray insects?
I try not to go into the scientific side of ecology too much. I try to be a bridge between museums and the public. I use museum collections for my work. The museum can provide the educational side, the scientific side and I’m a bridge that allows those two to have a conversation. There are a lot of people that generally will not go to the museum, and they won’t engage with nature. But if you want to talk to somebody about biodiversity or insect decline or any of these serious and slightly depressing subjects, there’s a transaction that needs to happen. You can’t expect somebody to give you their attention unless you give them something in return. The way I see it, I give them back a visual experience they would normally not get.
You can stand in front of one of my images three meters tall and inspect insects in microscopic detail. That’s something you can only really do through a microscope. I shoot with microscope lenses, and it gives the same effect as looking through a microscope. I personally think the experience of looking at something through a microscope is not very pleasant. The depth of field is so shallow you can’t see the whole specimen in the first place. You’re also hunched over looking at this object through the microscope. This is not a pleasant experience.
But, if you can stand in front of a photographic print and still hold the microscopic detail in clarity and take your time to appreciate every individual element, it’s a nice experience. If you give a person a pleasurable experience by viewing an insect, then you have their attention and then we can start having a conversation about insect decline and biodiversity loss.
You split up the insects in about 25 different sections and each section will be photographed and lit slightly differently. If I just photograph the eye of the fly it will be lit in a certain way because it is opaque and shiny. So, the light and technique you use on that will change compared to photographing a section of the wing because on the wing I may want to backlight it, so I can see the structure inside the wing.
We merge the sections together and essentially you end up with a jigsaw of 25 or 30 different sections that are fully focused from front to back. Then you join those sections together and that produces the final artwork. It usually takes about three weeks to make just one image.
How did your work on Extinct & Endangered affect your views on the topic?
It took two years full time to shoot the exhibition Extinct & Endangered. You are handling species that are extinct, which is quite a humbling experience. You know that this creature will never fly again. Halfway through the project I started slowly realizing it wasn’t just a project about insect decline and insect extinction.
It was actually equally about human extinction. I know that may sound ridiculous, but I think if you look back or if you try to understand how much humans rely on insects, if you remove insects from the planet, you and I just would not exist. It’s as simple as that.
The food you eat has been influenced by insects, the clothes you’re wearing now are influenced by insects. People need to understand that we need these creatures to survive and that we share an ecosystem with these creatures. Humans are just one species. We’re not this all-dominant being that can own a planet. We live on a planet shared with other creatures.
We get very upset when we lose a species of higher mammal, for example rhinos. We’re crying because this is the loss of such a beautiful creature. And I get it. I completely agree with it, it shouldn’t happen. But the reality is we are losing species of insects all the time. And this is primarily due to human influence. Whether that’s habitat loss, aggressive farming, aggressive agriculture, climate change, pesticide use, these are all human influences that are reducing the number of insects. And if we push it too far, then we’re only hurting ourselves.
Why did you choose to become a micro photographer?
I started out in more documentary-based work and I did a lot of sports-based work in sports advertising. But after a while, it just didn’t mean anything to me. You put all your effort, blood, sweat and tears into an image for, let’s say an ad campaign and it would be up on the on walls for a month and then it would be gone. I always describe it as being disposable.
If you have the skills to communicate then you need to use it for a good purpose. Don’t just use it to sell deodorant or a pair of shoes. I’m glad I worked in the advertising sector for a while because it gave me a financial platform to give me a bit more freedom to shoot what I wanted.
I’m not a particularly great lover of photography. Some people just like the whole technical side of cameras, but cameras don’t really fill my life. The technical process of photography is just a necessity to get to the end result. When the final picture is done, I’m moving on to the next thing. I’m not married to photography. If something else comes up that I think can be worthwhile, I’ll just go down that route.
What do you think is most unique about this planet?
I think the unique thing is the diversity of nature. Somehow due to very specific circumstances, going back millions and millions of years, the environmental conditions were just right to start to produce and create life and how that life has evolved and how it has changed makes me realize that we are just one tiny part of it and human beings won’t last forever.
What startles me is how much we have shaped the planet to suit us even though we have only been around for a minuscule amount of time. Are we going to burn ourselves out? Who knows? The good thing is that nature will carry on after us. Insects, for example, they have survived five mass extinctions already and they are now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. They will survive.
What worries you the most about climate change?
My biggest worry is the speed of change happening to the planet. We have had a summer here in the UK where we reached 40 degrees Celsius. It was the first time we had ever hit 40 degrees and it should not actually be possible because we are on an island surrounded by water. So theoretically, it should not be that hot here.
I’m looking outside now and we are consistently at -7°C in the morning at the moment. The predictions are that this summer will be very hot again and in 2024 it will be the hottest year on record again, where the increase of 1.5°C in global temperatures will be smashed already.
I do have concerns about the planet that my children will be growing up in, but I try not to think about it too much or too hard. The tricky thing is that they are growing into a space that is unknown and we don’t quite know what things are going to be like in the future. I’m 47, so in 30 old years’ time when the kids are my age, what will their life be like? What technological advancements will they be using?
The rate of acceleration in our technological advancement is kind of mind blowing at the moment, and it’s only going to get faster. It’s controlled by a very small section of society. I feel as though there’s a certain amount of trust we’re putting in people who are creating this technology. There are obviously advancements in evolution within nature and there will be certain insects that will evolve to adapt to their environments better with their own sort of design features. But they’ve happened over millennia, whereas ours are happening over decades. I think that’s a bit of a concern.
Is there something you personally want to achieve in life?
Just happiness, I think. And to make a little bit of a difference in the world and leave behind something that has a positive influence on the next generation. I think that’s going to be a good thing to do.
There are certain issues on my mind at the moment and I feel as though they’re kind of snowballing and maybe I’m a bit pessimistic at the moment. But, I’m shooting a lot at the University of Oxford and the Museum of Natural History at the moment using their collections and when I am pulling out drawers of insects or molluscs or butterflies or whatever it is I just look at the diversity of nature, how beautiful it is, simple as that. And then it does inspire you, again, to push forward and produce and document some of these collections. Hopefully I can carry on doing that and go to my happy place, Oxford, and keep on playing with nature.
I’m not a scientist. I haven’t got all the answers. All I can do is kind of inspire people and make them more aware of their surroundings, about the environment they live in and the fact that we share a planet with these tiny, beautiful creatures. If you make work that celebrates nature and celebrates the beauty, the design, the function and how clever it is, you can get people to appreciate it. They will understand it more and they will care for it more.
I think there’s this idea that as a photographer, you’ve got to show your work in art galleries or museums to gain some sort of respectable credibility. Which I think is bollocks. If you take work to a shopping centre, for example, you’ll reach a section of the population that probably won’t go to museums, they certainly won’t go to galleries. You’re giving them access to something they would not normally have ever seen. By doing that, you have the opportunity of influencing somebody and hopefully that somebody will be a small child, who will go on to do great things.
Link to the work of Levon Biss, Extinct & Endagered: extinctandendangered.com