Up-Close With Insect Photography

Photographer Jo Whaley makes bugs theatrical stars.

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Jo Whaley, 56, of Santa Fe, NM, is a fine-art photographer and photo professor. Her Theater of Insects is published in book form (Chronicle Books, 2008; $23). See more of her work at www.jowhaley.com.Jo Whaley

“People usually just step on insects,” says Jo Whaley. “But they are beautiful creatures, works of art in themselves.” She collects not only dead beetles and butterflies but rusted metal, plastic pitted by seawater, and fragments of iridescent glass to use in her work. In the series excerpted here, Theater of Insects, beetles are paired with an oxidized champagne bottle; a dragonfly, the top of an oil drum.

She arranges them on a table in her studio. “I start with one light— a Norman strobe, usually low and to the side. I aim the light reflected from small, handheld mirrors— sometimes with colored gels—into darker areas or onto the insect itself,” she says.

Then, she says, “I attach the mirrors to Bogen articulated arms or to small devices I’ve made from aluminum welding rods in black rubber tubing and electrical clips.”

These let her fine-tune the lighting while peering through her Canon EOS 5D with 100mm f/2.8 macro lens (for some of the images here, she used a Mamiya 6x7 with 90mm lens and Kodak Portra 160NC film). She sets the aperture to f/16 or f/22 at ISO 100, and often pops the strobe three times.

“I’m inspired by 18th-century paintings where insects were the symbol of the transience of life,” she says. “When they’re paired with man-made materials like plastic and glass, you question our culture’s relationship with nature and our own temporality.”

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Jo Whaley's setup
Papoilio Ulysses.jpg
Jo Whaley, 56, of Santa Fe, NM, is a fine-art photographer and photo professor. Her Theater of Insects is published in book form (Chronicle Books, 2008; $23). See more of her work at www.jowhaley.com.Jo Whaley
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Jo Whaley
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Jo Whaley
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Jo Whaley
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Jo Whaley
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Jo Whaley