Feb. 6, 2008
Kent Loeffler's photographs of tiny fungi tower in exhibit 'Miniature Landscapes'
Science, art, new technology and rigorous fieldwork have culminated in a Mann Library exhibition of "bug's-eye-view" photographs of tiny fungi.
Photographer Kent Loeffler of Cornell's Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology tramped through woods and crawled on many a forest floor to find and capture the infinitesimal mushrooms and slime molds featured in "Miniature Landscapes: Photographic Adventures with a Borescope," on display in the Mann gallery through Feb. 27.
Loeffler's quest for photographs of minute fungi native to upstate New York was spurred by Kathie Hodge, associate professor of mycology, who had stated a long-standing need for unique images for her lectures and to illustrate articles on the Cornell Mushroom Blog, which she hosts and edits.
"Being a scientific photographer, I thoroughly enjoy playing around with new toys -- er, tools. This project was no exception," he said. "Using the borescope to poke around in nooks and crannies really opened my eyes to the complexity and beauty of the miniature world that exists everywhere underfoot."
At first, Loeffler tried using a regular fisheye lens. "A few of these experiments were interesting ... but overall they weren't what she had envisioned," he said. "And it was a dirty job lying on the muddy ground trying to position a camera under a mushroom with things biting and crawling up my pants legs."
Then last spring, Hodge told Loeffler that funds had become available for the project.
"This was a whole new ballgame," he said. "I started researching unique lens systems on the Web and discovered the wonderful world of borescopes, both rigid and flexible."
Borescopes are used in industrial applications and in medicine (where they are called endoscopes). After a demonstration at the Gradient Lens Corp. factory in Rochester, Loeffler returned with a wide-angle borescope and accessories, ready for fieldwork.
There were some technical challenges, Loeffler said. He adapted the scope to his digital Nikon SLR camera and tried different lenses and lighting systems. With his subjects being so close to the ground, he used a beanbag rather than a tripod to steady the rig during long exposures.
"After several months of experimentation and dozens of trips to the field, I finally began to be satisfied with the quality of the images the system was producing," he said. "I discovered that the borescope could focus extremely close, imaging tiny objects only a few millimeters from the lens. From this perspective, miniscule mushrooms appear heroic in stature, tiny newts become dinosaurs, and insects are terrifyingly beautiful in their complexity."
The project was funded in part by the Faculty Innovation in Teaching Program.