When he began photographing natural history subjects, Anand Varma took a traditional documentary approach. But several years ago, he transitioned to what he describes as “a more controlled, studio style.” The change happened while he was assisting photographer David Liittschwager, who isolates specimens on plain backgrounds. “I realized that when you remove a distracting background, you can appreciate the subject in a completely different way,” Varma says. “And so I think about my work now as: How do I distill this concept, and illustrate this subject or experiment that’s happening in the clearest, most compelling way possible?”
Liittschwager’s photograph of a flounder larva was, to Varma, “this sort of light bulb going off that [photographing science and nature] is not just about saying, ‘This is what I saw.’ It’s actually almost like this superpower: Here’s something even I couldn’t see when it was right in front of me. It’s like this little treasure that you can experience if you know how to look at it in just the right way. And it’s the photograph that unlocks that treasure.”
Because it was his job to collect specimens for Liittschwager, Varma had caught the flounder larva. He says, “I got to spend all the time in the world with this thing right in front of me.” Still, he never saw or imagined it the way Liittschwager photographed it.
Liittschwager says his photographs are the result of a lot of experiments. Flounder larvae, which float in the ocean’s plankton layer, rely on their transparency to stay invisible to predators. So Liittschwager’s challenge was to photograph a see-through fish. He first tried lighting it from behind, focusing the light with condenser lenses from an old enlarger to increase the contrast and bring out the details. “I was well-trained in the darkroom, and that culminated with the printing of the ‘In the American West’ show with Richard Avedon,” whom Liittschwager assisted.
Liittschwager liked the results of passing condensed light through the flounder, but says, “I’m a little bit of an obsessive compulsive. I thought: Let’s try some other ways. Maybe we can do better.” He eventually put the fish against a black background and lit it at an oblique angle—about five degrees above horizontal—with diffused light. That brought out the iridescence of the fish skin.
Given the cost of the scientific research he gets to witness and the expertise scientists share with him, Liittschwager feels pressure to push himself to make the best pictures he can. And scientists are often willing to help him try his ideas, because they appreciate the process of experiment and discovery. “That’s a wonderful environment in which to try all sorts of things,” Liittschwager says.