Photographer's latest book is packed with 'astounding' images

Posted: Thursday, December 09, 2004

As a photographer, I have long been a fan of another local photographer, Rob-ert H. Armstrong. He may be best-known for his book, "Guide to the Birds of Alaska," and for the many natural history articles he and his collaborator, Marge Hermans, published in "Alaskan Southeaster" Magazine.

In addition to being a great photographer, Bob is also an obsessed naturalist - and I mean that in the best possible way. After a long career as a biologist, he still has a ravenous curiosity about the natural world. He loves to learn firsthand, and through the scientific works of others, about the intricate details that make up a plant or animal's life. And he loves to share those details.

Separately or together, and sometimes with other artists and naturalists, Armstrong and Her-mans have published dozens of natural history books, articles and pamphlets. But their latest outdoes them all. "Southeast Alaska's Natural World," a 224-page book packed with fascinating text and 350 of Armstrong's photographs, is simply astounding in its quality, depth and diversity.

While I am constantly amazed at the excellence of Armstrong's nature photos and the patience and trouble he is willing to endure to get them, one of my favorite things about his and Hermans' work is the fact that they go far beyond the usual bears, eagle and whales most Alaskan nature photographers and writers seem stuck on. They explore in meticulous detail wild plants and animals that rarely, if ever, get any press. And they do it with an amazing assortment of species, including the tiny, the obscure and the quirky.

An example of the type of unusual photos Armstrong gets is in a section of the book titled "The Perfect Prey." It chronicles the life (and death) of the sand lance, a tiny fish that burrows into the sand at night or when they are not feeding, to conserve energy and escape predators. He actually has a good picture of a partially buried sand lance, its head protruding above the surface of the sand. No one I know of but Armstrong would have such a photo. And he also has shots of various birds gorging themselves on the unfortunate fish.

You might not normally think of the sand lance as worthy of its own five-page section in a book, but Armstrong and Hermans manage to hook you and reel you in. They do it repeatedly throughout the book, whether they are talking about the many bird species covered, or the more unusual subjects such as newts, dragonflies and slime molds.

Armstrong's photographs are often not just portraits of animals; they are records of how the animals live. He frequently catches them in the act carrying out their lives; in courtship, while preying on others, or while giving their lives as prey. He captures birds feeding and in various stages of flight, insects, fish and amphibians at various stages of life, and even a spider that has killed and is eating a much larger bumblebee.

This book, which is largely a compilation of the more than 50 articles Armstrong and Hermans have published, includes photos and information depicting numerous creatures or types of vegetation that you probably have never noticed or thought about. But after seeing the photos and reading Armstrong and Hermans' fun, folksy, non-scientific but fact-filled and often humorous text, you will wonder why you have never noticed or appreciated these under-observed species.

While the book doesn't come right out and say so, it's easy to see that Armstrong and Hermans recognize that these seemingly inconsequential plants and critters are the unsung heroes of our landscape. They are important parts of the biologic engine that makes our rainforest function. They are interesting, vital, and should not be ignored or forgotten. For many years to come, "Southeast Alaska's Natural World," will ensure they are not.

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