Microsculpture - The insect photography of Levon Biss

Oxford University Museum of Natural History: 27 May – 30 October 2016

Theresa Thompson for Oxford Times May 2016

When portrait photographer Levon Biss decided to try his hand at macro photography in his free time, he didn’t do it by halves.

He created a brilliant series of ginormous photos of insects as you’ve never seen them before: Microsculpture, a revelatory exhibition that’s now in the main court of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The amazing sculptural forms of insects are only possible to see at the microscopic level. And that is the level that Levon takes us to, revealing things like the absurd shape and pitted body of the Tortoise Beetle - a perfect cartoon splat!; the glistening bronze wings, and emerald, lapis blue body of the Orchid Cuckoo Bee; and revealed in its all startling graded jewel-like colours, the Splendid-necked Dung Beetle. Who’d have thought?

The exquisitely-lit and breathtakingly clear photographic prints in Microsculpture are huge, with the largest measuring three metres across. Seen alongside tiny insect specimens from the Museum’s entomology collection (the second largest in Britain), this transformation of scale offers, says the museum ‘a unique viewing experience’.

The project began two years ago. “My six-year-old son was always playing with insects in the garden,” says Levon.

“He knew I was working on high-magnification photography – and one day he came in saying why didn’t I try looking at insects under my microscope.

“Working with microscope lenses turns a traditional photographic process upside down. It’s challenging, but once you start looking at insects you always see something more - it’s addictive - and there’s an endless supply of insects!”

Dr James Hogan, an entomologist in the Museum’s Life Collections, worked with Levon to select the insects, and interpreted them for the exhibition. For example, where possible, Dr Hogan includes discussions of the evolutionary adaptations that gave rise to a particular microsculpture form.

Levon’s commercial work is mainly sport and portrait photography, and has also written a bestselling book on football, called One Love. He explained his method in putting together this body of work: “I photograph the insect in approximately 30 different sections, depending on the size of the specimen. Each section is lit differently with strobe lights to bring out the micro-sculptural beauty of that particular section of the body. For example, I will light and shoot just one antenna, then I will move on to the eye and the lighting set up will change entirely to suit the texture and contours of that part of the body. This process continues until I have covered the whole surface area of the insect.”

Using microscope lenses attached to regular lenses, you get a very shallow depth of field, said Levon. To overcome this, he photographed sections from front to back every 10 microns (an average human hair is 75 µm; that is, for comparison, seven photos per human hair). Each final image comprises over 8,000 individual photos – the images built up in a ‘stacking’ process and the sections fitted together.

You can get an idea of the amount of work put into each image from a short video in the show, and on the website - zooming in on an individual insect to explore these creatures in minute detail (and like me, spending ages doing so!).

Combining art with science, Microsculpture is part of the Museum’s year-long Visions of Nature 2016 programme, which also includes artist Kurt Jackson’s exhibition on bees and pollinators, which is in the museum’s upper gallery.

Microsculpture runs until October 30 and is free. See oum.ox.ac.uk/

For Levon’s film, see: microsculpture.net