Microsculpture: Jack Rayner meets Levon Biss
"Quentin Tarantino. He’s a very odd chap in the best sense. I was working with him when Django was coming up, and he is wonderfully childlike and enthusiastic."
Levon Biss’s painstakingly detailed photographic portraits of insects from the Oxford Museum of Natural History’s collection transcend the normal boundaries of photography both in technique and in presentation, and really need to be seen in person to be truly appreciated.
Not just a wildlife photographer, Levon has shot a monumental variety of projects from portraits of Samuel L Jackson to covers for Time Magazine and sports photography all over the world. Jack Rayner caught up with Levon to talk creativity, Quentin Tarantino and being held at gunpoint…
Microsculpture is quite a large departure from what you have done in the past. What inspired you to go down the macrophotography route?
My work is quite busy – it takes me away a lot because generally I have to go to wherever my subjects are. I’m doing a lot of sports work so I deal with a lot of athletes and they can be anywhere in the world. Generally, I spend quite a lot of time away traveling - I think around 90% of my work is on location, so I needed a personal project to come back to that is always there when I get back to my studio in Wiltshire.
What is your studio like?
I work on an estate and my landlord has basically converted all the farm buildings into studio spaces. I work in an old potting shed, and I use it purely for my own personal work: It’s my little den to do my bits and pieces in. What I needed for this project was something that was always there and didn’t take up huge amounts of space, but was still very different. There’s so much imagery out there these days – I think we are saturated with images and people look at images for a second, if that, and then they are gone, that’s it. Photography these days is so disposable.
Do you think that the impact of high-octane imagery is lost when we are so bombarded with them in daily life?
Yes, exactly. I sometimes do commercial shoots where we spend three of four days on a campaign and then that campaign is up and gone within a month. You’ve put your blood, sweat and tears into it, So what I wanted to do was go back and create images that have got a real sense of worth where each one of these images takes me anything from two to four weeks to create.
Yes. Per Image. I’ve got 24 images in this exhibition, and it’s taken me two years full-time. It takes about four days or so to shoot the actual insect, and then after that it takes three or four days to process that information.
Talk me through the actual process of shooting the insects.
I’ve got an old butchered microscope stand which is cut in half so I can move the insect perfectly in front of the lens. The camera is set on a rail, and I’ve got a camera with a tube lens on it, and at the end of that is a microscope objective. That’s on a rail that has only a straight axis so in front of it, so I can then adjust the insects in fine detail left and right, up and down, to position it within the lens. Because microscope lenses give you a very shallow depth of field, you have to take a lot of images to get from the front of an insect to the back, and then try and get all that information into one focus. The camera will move forward 10 microns between each shot, so I’ve got a system where I can programme it automatically now, so I set my front focal point and my back focal point and set the camera to run forward, take a picture, then go on 10 microns and take another photo, and so on. I will then shoot in about 30 different sections, so I just work on an eye, for example, and I’ll use my commercial studio lighting techniques just to make that eye as good as it possibly can be. I do that all over the insect until I get around 30 different groups, each with about 800 images in it. Then through photo-stacking techniques we slowly flatten all those images down so I get one final image which is flat and in full sharpness. You then bring those together in post-production and retouch them.
Although it’s a completely different style of photography, I can see similar techniques in how you lit Usain Bolt, with the lighting focusing on the straining of his muscles and so on. You can see how your style translates between the two mediums.
Well that’s it. For example, I would light you very differently to how I would light myself, because you’ve got a different shaped face. If people have got darker skin, you light differently. If people have got lighter skin, you light it differently. If people have got very angular faces, you light them differently.
So do you apply that same theory to the insects?
Yes, completely. Shape, colour, vibrancy, texture and amount of hair all have an effect - the lighting is different on every insect and every part of those insects. No insect is photographed the same. It’s not one setup where you put the insect in front and let the camera run. Each of the 30 or so sections is photographed separately to make that section look as great as it can.
How does it feel to finally be seeing the prints?
It’s very satisfying, especially when they are as big as they are. What’s probably more satisfying is other people seeing them - their jaw drops and that’s a nice feeling. The exhibition opens to the public on the 27th May, and I might just camp out for the day, incognito, and just hang around and watch people’s reactions. Especially the kids. I’ve got two young kiddies and it’s nice that they enjoy my pictures. I purposely didn’t make these creatures scary, it would have been too easy to make things scary.
You’ve worked with a lot of household names: Usain Bolt, Mario Balotelli, Who’s been the greatest pleasure to work with?
Quentin Tarantino. He’s a very odd chap in the best sense. I was working with him when Django was coming up, and he is wonderfully childlike and enthusiastic. Considering the commercial success he’s had, it’s fantastic that he has kept that childlike enthusiasm for his subjects.
You’ve travelled to every type of location imaginable. What’s the most insane thing that’s happened on a shoot?
There have been some stranger jobs where I’ve been hanging off rock faces in South Africa shooting the whole campaign on a mobile phone, where I’d be hanging off a 120ft mountain with a mobile phone and the sun in my face. I’ve had guns and knives pulled on me.
Where was that?
Peru. I went to a favela called Babylon in Rio, just north of Copacabana Beach, and I went up there with a guy I met on the street and had the best part of £30k worth of cameras on my back. I’d heard there was a football pitch up the top and I was going up there to shoot some soccer. I went up a winding path to the top and there was a little hut on each bend and groups of about six or seven little kids, maybe 10 or 12 years old, each with a pistol. They’re there to keep a lookout and it’s quite a humbling experience to have your life put into the hands of a child. As soon as they realise what you are doing, and that I was going up there to photograph the pitch, and them, and their life, they want to shake your hand.
What do you look for in a subject? A lot of your work appears to focus on people in motion, or on body parts.
For someone like Usain Bolt, you don’t have to do much because their body is so unique. For commercial work, the trick is to be creative on the spot and make something out of nothing, where the subject perhaps hasn’t got many visually interesting features, and that’s where the lighting techniques come in. You can sculpt a subject with light to make them much more interesting than it actually is.
Does digital photography give you more scope to be creative?
I can shoot different things. I would have been physically impossible to shoot this Microsculpture project ten years ago. When I started out, every frame I shot cost money, and when I was travelling I often had 50 to 100 rolls of film with me. If you go through an X-ray in an airport or lose that bag, that’s a whole two weeks’ worth of work gone. Now, you don’t have that problem: you instantly upload to the cloud. At the same time, there are disadvantages because people don’t think about the shot as much anymore. I know a photographer who shoots on small memory cards so he can only get about 30 images on the card - his thinking is that it still gives you the mentality of shooting on film.
Putting obstacles in your way to force greater creativity.
Yeah. The obstacle is there so you can step back and give yourself a bit of breathing space and evaluate what you have done. It’s a more considered approach and I think it’s a wonderful way to work.
Photography used to be much more of on occasion, whereas now everybody has a perfectly functional camera in their pocket.
It’s good that people are taking pictures and it’s good that things are being recorded, but just because you are taking lots of pictures doesn’t make them good. I think that’s why this project is cathartic for myself, because taking three weeks to produce a single image means that image holds far more weight than a picture I have just shot in a morning. Disposable imagery is the way the world works now, but I do think that the rise of social media and the way people communicate through images online is wonderful. The world is a very small place now. I get emails about my projects from all over the world.
It must be great for you to have shot these images in a small studio in Wiltshire and then to get positive responses from all over the world.
It’s fantastic. We’ve just launched a website which allows people to zoom very deep into the images, and through analytics I can see where it is being used across the world. The majority are in the UK and the US, but there are views dotted all over the world.
Are you planning to do more of these macro projects in the future?
Absolutely. I’m interested in pictures that are technically difficult to do, that take some thinking and aren’t just simple images that make the viewer think “Ahh, isn’t that a pretty picture?” I get bored with photography very quickly, because it’s not hard to make good pictures anymore – it’s hard to make pictures that are different. It is hard to hold people’s interest because it’s such a saturated market, so whatever you do has to have an angle that’s unique, and I think that’s what Microsculpture does. Nobody has seen pictures like these before and it gives the viewer a chance to play around with them. At the exhibition you’ll be able to stand next to the millimetre-long specimen itself, the real thing, and then look up at this 3 metre photograph. It gives you an experience.
‘Microsculpture’ opens at the Museum of Natural History from 27th May. You can see the full-resolution images at Microsculpture.net
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