Look closely at the things you might normally turn away from. Reconsider – even when things are met with success. And by focusing on them, I’m focusing on all of us. Those are lessons I’ve learned from documenting insects for more than 20 years.
I created my first insect study in 1996 while working in Vancouver, British Columbia. My interpretation of the butterfly was both illustrative and conceptual, with additional compositional elements and props. Four years later, my work for Olympus America and Olympus Japan took me to New York, where I purchased a couple of beetle specimens from the Evolution Store. Once I returned to the studio, I “played around” with some ideas. Similar to the rendering created in 1996, these images included additional props and backgrounds - to continue to build narratives supported by staging. Although I was pleased with the early studies and honoured that the images were published by Canadian Geographic, I did not believe the images addressed the sublime beauty of each insect. These images were too “tricky” and “clever.” Concept over authenticity.
Fast forward to around 2007. I began collecting insect specimens in earnest while remaining unsure about how I would represent the specimens. What, exactly, did the insect kingdom mean to me? Why would a future project be considered relevant? Two things were clear: one, the project would rely on the printed image to provide enhanced scale and detail for the viewer; two, both the anterior and posterior views of the beetles would need to be shown to fully articulate anatomical form and function. As I quickly discovered, the posterior view could be considered more fascinating than the anterior view!
Although each specimen portrays a unique and sublime beauty, the insects are to be viewed as a collective, with the prints displayed in a grid. This project retains a strong connection to typological ambitions, as each specimen is uniformly treated on either a white or black canvas and reproduced at the same size. For example, if a series of 17 x 20 prints were displayed, each specimen would be 15 ¼ inches in height (or length). So, when viewed as a grid, each specimen would be aligned along a vertical or horizontal axis to create a uniform and consistent placement within the white or black background. Furthermore, these typological presentations allow for a careful examination of the similarities and differences that exist between the varied forms of each insect.
How do people respond to large-format images of insects? When viewed as either a grouping or singular image, I have discovered that any previous aversion to insects is at least minimized – if not eliminated – by the viewer upon further inspection and reflection of the specimen and print. For the viewer, this newly discovered appreciation of insects becomes a transformative process, as they now react with feelings of wonder and astonishment. This marks the moment of success for me and typically begins a conversation about the purpose of this project that has become a balance between science and art, documentation and study.
As the project began to take shape, I determined the work is not about me, per se. It’s not about fostering artistic or creative ambitions but rather, the project is about the insects: about their unique form, texture, colour and anatomical specifications. This accounts for the simplicity of representation and authenticity afforded to each image and specimen by the simple canvas, devoid of staging and narrative. Except for the abstracted butterfly wing studies, all specimens are treated in the same manner.
A discussion about the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, and the preservation of natural habitats will usually begin between the viewer and me. As natural habitats for many animal species are under threat or disappearing, this idea determines the ultimate purpose of this project: to at least start a conversation about humankind’s partnership with the animal kingdom and natural world and to preserve biodiversity for future generations.
The goal is to form partnerships between industry and environmental groups, supporting advocacy, education and change. We only need to consider the plight of bees to underscore the importance of this humble insect and the role it plays in our food supply to become sensitive to this issue. Allowing space for conversations about the frequently underappreciated insect species is a small step toward building harmonious relationships with all terrestrial and aquatic species.
The scale and diversity of the insect kingdom is incredibly vast. For this reason alone, I could never hope to document a fraction of the insect kingdom in a single lifetime. So, I have chosen a cross-section of sub-groups to study.
Many of the beetle specimens may be acquired as either a single anterior (top) view or as set pairs, showing both the anterior and posterior (bottom) views as two framed prints displayed as a diptych (an example is shown on the blog).
Proceeds from the sale of each print will be donated to the World Wildlife Fund.
Paul Eekhoff B.sc., MFA