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On the difference between natural history art photography, and natural history photojournalism

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Meet Tetradonia, a pugnacious little rove beetle that eats army ants:

Tetradonia beetle attacking an army ant. Belize.

Any animal specialized to feed on army ants is seriously badass, especially those that are smaller than the ants themselves. I’ve wanted to photograph Tetradonia for years, and this January during the BugShot workshop we happened across this one sniping at the edges of an Eciton hamatum raid.

I managed a single shot. This one. It’s slightly overexposed with too much motion blur.  I also framed it poorly. I cropped away 50% of the pixels to make a passable composition. Not my best work.

But, the blurry capture is also my only photograph of this animal. Do I upload it to my professional galleries anyway? It won’t look great printed, and I’d feel embarrassed to sell it onwards for, say, a display at a natural history museum.

The question isn’t trivial, as it burrows right to the heart of why I photograph insects. Am I making pretty images? Or am I documenting real natural history?

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jasongoldman 11:52 pm 03/27/2013

    I think that the answer to his question applies less to the overall endeavour than it does to each individual photograph…

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  2. 2. Sean McCann 12:43 am 03/28/2013

    Hmmm. Maybe you should have a separate section for “stock” natural history shots, which you could offer specific licencing for…Perhaps by the way you market them you will make it clear that they are not art.

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  3. 3. TheHymenopteran 5:25 am 03/28/2013

    I think you’re documenting natural history Alex. The creative flair that permeates your images is a great bonus that adds value beyond this point into the realm of art.

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  4. 4. James.Waters 5:42 pm 03/28/2013

    This is a very personal question because it seems you are torn between your identity as an elite artist and a rigorous scientist. Maybe it doesn’t make the cut for your beautiful galleries (though it surely would for mine), but I can imagine it being a great photo to accompany a blog piece describing some of beetle/ant natural history, especially since it’s a field action shot!

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  5. 5. johnnyswatts 9:43 pm 04/8/2013

    This is a question I run into frequently in my position as a microscopist. I find that all too often “pretty picture” is used disparagingly in the sciences, and I don’t think your question necessarily has an either/or answer. There is no reason why, in general, scientific images cannot or should not also be beautifully composed and competently executed. This simply makes for effective communication and also acts as advertisement of the skill of the investigator in an increasingly competitive milieu. You yourself have commented in a recent post about the need to use an oblique or darkfield lighting technique to clearly illustrate the hairs on ants in your images for taxonomic purposes. This is a case where, in order to advance the science, a good amount of technical and artistic mastery is needed.

    Sometimes, however, we don’t have the opportunity tho compose our images as carefully as we’d like, and some subjects don’t appear very often. At these times, you’ve just got to take the shot you’re presented with and offer it to the appropriate audience. It may not be an ideal image, but it’s still better than most other work on this subject, and it shows the subject in a natural context and acting naturally. That’s pretty good, I’d day.

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