The hidden beauty of seeds and fruits, at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh


FOR almost a decade, Levon Biss has traveled the smallest of things. Using strobe lighting, high-end macro lenses and a specially designed rack that moves his camera in micron rather than millimeter increments, the London photographer has produced works such as Microsculpture, a extraordinary series of close-ups of insects so rich in detail, they can be displayed as huge wall prints.

When a 2019 traveling exhibition of these images was shown at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden (RBGE), a chance meeting with herbarium curators David Harris and Lesley Scott paved the way for a new project. This is how The Hidden Beauty Of Seeds And Fruits was born, macro-photographic prints of 59 specimens chosen from the huge collection of the garden. Completed just before the first lockdown in March 2020, it took weeks of 45 years of hard work.

The branch of botany concerned with seeds and fruits is carpology. The RBGE herbarium contains more than three million dried plant specimens and 3,500 carpological specimens, collected over three centuries and on all continents. A project born of the Enlightenment finds the expression of the 21st century in the cutting-edge work undertaken by the botanist of the garden to map climate change and plant migration, or to measure pollution levels. In this context, Biss’s detailed images are more than just a visual feast for visitors and more than just works of art taken from the natural world.

“I don’t consider myself to be an artist,” he says. “I prefer to use my work as a communication tool. I use a creative medium but I use it as a tool to communicate with people. All of these specimens would normally never be seen by the public. They would be locked in drawers. So I try to open these collections so that museums can make their collections known to the public. I think art is a tasteless thing. I prefer my photography to be put to good use.

With so many specimens, how did he make his selection? “We went through thousands of boxes and examined countless numbers of specimens. I looked first at the appearance. Are they visually interesting? This is always how it starts. Will this make a good photo? Then you look at conservation, what kind of condition is it in? There is no point in showing people an old specimen that looks rotten and horrible. On top of that, I was looking for an interesting story. Many of these specimens were collected a long time ago. Some are over 100 years old and I have often wondered under what circumstances they were collected. Who collected them? What did they have to go through to bring this specimen back from the other side of the world?

Many had faded notes attached in exquisite handwriting giving the specimen the botanical name. One or two even had descriptions of where the specimen had been found. “I found these notes quite romantic, these centuries-old notes. There was one where the botanist had written that he had found it in “quite an ordinary landscape.” I had this vision of this guy wandering through a jungle for weeks, depressed, tired and hungry, and that was all he could find for a description.

The exhibit and a corresponding book contain images of seeds such as the yellow heart-shaped Piquia, the deliciously spooky Bofiyu (which appears to have a pair of eyes peering inside), and the Rosary Pea. Its bright red and black seeds resemble ladybugs nesting in a handful of wood chips but are very poisonous to the point of potentially fatal. This did not prevent them from being used as ornamental beads and, after being boiled and processed, as a treatment for arthritis.

Other seeds and fruits in the exhibit resemble (more or less) aliens, insects, Halloween masks, avant-garde costume jewelry, internal organs and – in the case of the Australian Burbark – that sharp graphic you see used to illustrate new reports of the coronavirus. The names are just as fantastic: Cow Itch, Grapple Plant, Coco De Mer, Dutchman’s Pipe, Resurrection Plant, Monkey Egg, and Black She-Oak are just a few of the weird nicknames.

Biss creates her images using a process called photo stacking in which multiple images are taken and then layered or composed in photographers’ lingo. “You do this to get full focus, because the higher the magnification, the less focus there is,” he explains. “It’s what you call shallow depth of field. So there will only be a tiny burst of focus in the image. Biss’s insect photos used 10,000 separate images and took months to compose. With the weather against him in Edinburgh, he typically only took a hundred images of each seed, with his camera advancing 10 microns at a time, so the final composite image was still incredibly sharp. .

Does he have a favorite? He does. It is the wonderful electric shock plant, native to Brazil and Argentina and covered in tiny hairs that deposit calcium phosphate and other harmful minerals in the mouth of any herbivorous rash enough to try to eat it. The result is a sensation much like an electric shock. “I had to push hard enough with the herbarium curators that we use the local names for things because for me, if you use a scientific name, which is in Latin, it’s just a jumble of words He said. “But what’s called an electric shock factory is fantastic – if you’re trying to educate people, you have to meet them halfway.”

It is not for nothing that we speak of the seeds of knowledge.

The Hidden Beauty Of Seeds & Fruits is at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh until September 26 (free entry); The Hidden Beauty of Seeds and Fruit: Botanical Photography by Levon Biss Now Available (Abrams, £ 30)


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