Delightful denizens

May 17, 2006 at 12:00 am

Photographer Rick Lieder is out to change the typically repulsive reaction to insects and other backyard invertebrates. In 31 photographs, currently on display at the Detroit Zoo, Lieder sheds light on behavior at the microscopic scale through strikingly beautiful portraits of tiny creatures.

The bug project began in 2002 as a self-imposed challenge to create something of beauty with just a camera and a Tamron 90 mm macro among other lenses — no tripod, no flash and no digital manipulation. As a result, not only has he created fine art photographs, he's captured the personality of his subjects. It goes without saying that working at such a tiny scale with subjects who rarely hold their poses increases the difficulty. Lieder attributes his success to patience. Poised in the grass, waiting for hours for the right moment, Lieder became attuned to these critters, and his fascination with their behavioral patterns fueled a much larger project than originally anticipated. Now, he not only shoots in his Berkley backyard, but in similar settings in New York City and Leamington, Ontario.

Originally trained as a scientist, Lieder, 51, left that world around 1980 to study photography and painting. His background in science explains his interest in investigating and documenting life at this scale in great accuracy and detail, while his understanding of light and composition lends each picture unique artistic merit. With an exceedingly narrow band of sharp focus on the subject, and a steady hand, the background dissolves into a blurred dreamscape, an atmospheric field of green, yellow and orange.

With his lush palette, it's conceivable that Lieder's compositions might be mistaken for paintings. To describe just a few: A leafhopper climbs diagonally along a shaft of green grass edged in a sliver of brilliant blue — it's a sharp contrast to the softer greens infusing the rest of the image. This isn't Photoshop; it's Lieder's use of natural light, in this case, a reflection of the sky. In another image, an amber-hued wasp with transparent wings is perfectly silhouetted against a brilliant sunny spotlight. Lieder also photographs a butterfly head-on, its wings obscured, with the focus instead on its spindly legs and curving, elongated proboscis (mouth). This intensely interplays with the backdrop, featuring pink vertical shafts of stamens emanating from a flower.

With each portrait, Lieder presents a short narrative. One portrait, he notes, is "100 percent made in Detroit," shot at the Dally in the Alley. He offers insight into his subjects' daily struggles: "Witness an ant stretching to bridge the impossibly wide gulf between two plant stalks." His comments articulate his search for beauty, even in something as seemingly ordinary as his backyard. In the text accompanying a photo of a glass-like spider, taken in New York City's Central Park, Lieder writes: "Any place is Eden if you take the time to look." Another caption describes his yard as a "green cathedral of grass."

In revealing this beauty, Lieder wants us to see these small creatures as "more than just 'bugs' or 'pests.'" It's his objective to "highlight their remarkable biodiversity, making a difference to efforts in conservation, and the public appreciation of all wildlife." This photo collection is a stunning visual achievement and an eye-opener. Check out the show, or his Web site,, and then explore your microwilderness.


Portraits of a MicroWilderness: Michigan's Backyard Invertebrates runs through Sept. 13, at the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery's Exhibit Hall, the Detroit Zoo, Royal Oak; 248-398-0900.

Nick Sousanis is the arts editor at Send comments to [email protected]