Photographer specializes in capturing bugs

Posted: Monday, July 25, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Dennis Daigger sees things most of us don't. Not that he has X-ray vision or the ability to go nocturnal. What he sees is right there in front of us in broad daylight. Little things - the littler, the better.

A snail no bigger than a pinhead. A spider the size of a sesame seed. A tiny buffalo tree hopper making its way across a leaf of lettuce that just arrived from the grocery store.

Most people would wash a stowaway like that down the drain. Daigger grabs his camera and immortalizes it.

Ever see a bug like that up close?

How about the top of a wolf spider's head?

Or the spiked hairdo of the woolly bear caterpillar?

If everyone else were aiming binoculars into the sky, Daigger would be pointing his down by his feet. Some people photograph bears; he photographs bugs.

As a fine-art photographer, he shoots a lot of other things too. But bugs, through a macro lens, draw him into a world he can't resist. He goes where they go, on his hands and knees, on his belly, on his back.

"I just stay perpetually intrigued by this stuff," he said.

He has photographed all kinds of insects in all kinds of places, among them damselflies, harvestmen, shield bugs and countless what-the-heck-is-that? arachnids. Magnified like that, through a 65mm, 1-5x macro lens, eyes become bowling balls and proboscises turn into medieval lances. Abdomens sport faux feathers and fur; wings are made of iridescent lace.

"With people, the closer you get, the less you like the texture," Daigger said. "And with these kinds of things, the closer you get, the more intriguing the texture becomes.

"That lens and camera setup, it's purely magical. I don't know how else to describe it."

Through his magical lens, common household pests become behemoth, worthy of audition for a sci-fi movie. And the aphid - that speck-of-a-bug that does to your greenery what a cat does to your couch - looks like a walking water balloon.

Bugs supersized is mega-creepy to some people. But Daigger finds this world beautiful and intriguing. He's made an art of it, of slowing down to look at things, of studying larvae or an annoyed bug in self-defense mode, putting up its dukes.

"There are lots of things out there people have never seen unless it's crawled on them," he said. "We don't have time to see anything up close. Too much clutter in our lives. We're too busy doing too many things in too many places."

This is a man who remembers vividly the first time he peered into a microscope. He was just a kid, and it was just a blade of grass. But it changed the way he saw things. It changed the way he wanted to see things, anyway.

"Absolutely everything I got near after that, I put under the microscope," he said.

"Ever see the scales on butterfly wings?"

That fascination evolved into a passion for macrophotography. Flowers, mushrooms, leaves, so many things are transformed up close.

Bugs came later. He credits his now-grown kids, about 3 and 4 at the time, for showing him what was there all along. They'd been outside making mud pies when his son showed him a film canister he'd filled with a layer of tiny snails.

"It seems as we get older and more mature, we start filtering out all these things around us," Daigger said. "But the kids out there puttering around in the dirt find these little tiny snails smaller than the head of a pin. There were like four different species; you could tell by how the coiling occurred on the shells. I'd never seen them before. I'd never paid any attention. I'm not down there with my nose in the dirt."

On a bug safari at Westchester Lagoon the other day, Daigger went right in the water, sloshing about dangerously close to the tops of his rubber boots. He poked around the shore, picking up things no one else would and peeking underneath.

"Oh, look at that," he said with enthusiasm that was genuinely contagious. "This is a dragonfly larvae. And see that leech? Wait till you see a close-up of these things. You won't believe it."

The caddis fly larvae poking its head out of some kind of tube was a big hit.

"It's probably leaves that it wrapped around itself, and it's just huddled down in there. Pretty cool, huh?"

Getting these things in focus isn't easy. Tripods can help, but not when you've got a bug on the go. And what bug isn't?

"It's a very narrow depth of field," Daigger explained. "And then you've got reflections you're worried about. I've concluded that hand-holding is about the best you can do. It's a compromise. ... The fun of it is that it's hard to do."+

Not everyone is willing to chase subjects around the way he does. Not everyone's that patient.

"There are people who put these things in the freezer to cool them down so they can manage them," he said. "I can tell bugs that have been photographed that way. It looks like a sluggish bug when you get done with it."

It's like making a portrait of a man while he's sleeping. Because these are portraits Daigger is making, not just pictures.

This is what it takes to love this kind of photography and this kind of subject matter: not getting too frustrated when it doesn't work out. Because so often it doesn't.

The only way around that is to just keep shooting. Shoot and shoot and shoot. Daigger typically shoots between 6,000 and 10,000 images a year.

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