Award-winning photographer opens up a big world through tiny wildlife images
Anand Varma kicks off Park City Institute’s 2022-23 Main Stage season
- When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 8
- Where: Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd.
- Cost: $11.25-$37.75
- Phone: 435-655-3114
- Web: parkcityinstitute.org
Anand Varma remembers the scene he saw when he first found a way to capture a macro photograph of a parasitoid wasp attacking a spider.
“I put some light behind it, and all of sudden (the spider’s) legs turned a rainbow of colors and you could see the tiny hairs poking up along his body,” he said. “That was one kind of detail that I had no idea existed.”
Varma, an award-winning photographer known for his work with National Geographic, will discuss how he has photographed some of the wild’s smallest creatures, on Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
The National Georgraphic Live presentation will kick off the Park City Institute’s 2022-23 Main Stage season, and tickets are on sale now.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Varma, who has developed innovative techniques, including building some of his own equipment, to capture images that include documenting hummingbird behaviors and the life cycle of honeybees.
Although Varma has made a career out of photographing things imperceptible to the naked eye, his interest in the camera developed from a hobby.
“It wasn’t even that serious of a hobby,” he said. “My dad had bought a digital camera towards the end of my high schooling, and I picked it up.”
While Varma doesn’t remember exactly why he picked up the camera, he thought it would be something fun to “mess with.”
“I went out with my friends, and we’d thought we’d go hiking around an area outside of Atlanta called Stone Mountain,” he said. “It was kind of our little playground, because there are a lot of woods around to explore.”
One of his first wildlife pictures was of a garter snake in these woods.
“The picture, itself, was what really excited my friend,” Varma said with a laugh. “He couldn’t believe how close I got to the snake. Even though the real thing was right there, we were obsessing over the picture.”
His friend’s reaction marked the first time Varma recognized the power of photography.
“It showed me how a picture could spark curiosity and excitement,” he said. “So after that, I kept my camera with me throughout college during field trips. It was a way for me to document cool things I would come across in our explorations.”
Varma’s camera caught the eye of one of his professors.
“He wrote to me at the end of my sophomore year and told me about a professional photographer who was looking for an assistant,” Varma said. “It thought, ‘Sure. Why not?’ I thought it would be a cool summer job while I was figuring out what I wanted to do.”
The photographer that Varma’s professor wrote about was David Liittschwager, known for his work with National Geographic, Audubon and Scientific America.
Working with Liittschwager opened Varma’s eyes to the potential of pursuing photography as a career, especially taking photos of the minute world.
“It’s part of the style of photography that David was interested in, and it resonated with my own curiosity and childhood,” Varma said. “I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta with a creek running behind my house, and I followed my older brother and sister when we turned over rocks looking for salamanders. And photography was another way of looking at small critters, but seeing them more closely.”
Not only does macro photography use magnifying lenses, it also involves the use of high shutter speeds.
“One of the things that is so rewarding about this style of photography is that you can learn something new about a creature by magnifying details and freezing its motion,” he said.
In addition to seeing the hairs on a spider’s body in his parasite wasp photo, Varma also discovered the iridescence quality of hummingbird feathers and that bees have small hairs growing directly out of their eyes.
“Because I’m shooting at high speed and can see how the colors of the features shift, based on the angles that you see them,” he said. “While I had some sense of that happening, seeing it happen on screen gave me a different sense of appreciation for the structural complexity of the feathers.”
Taking these intricate photographs takes a lot of planning, Varma said.
“I might have an idea of what I want to photograph, but that idea gets tossed out the window pretty quickly,” he laughed. “So I usually end up relying on the back of my camera to tell me what the potential is with the subject. I use my camera as a probe to explore what details are there that are hidden and hard to notice.”
Varma finds his subjects through a combination of conversations with his scientist friends and National Geographic assignments.
“I came up with the parasites idea because a good friend of mine from Berkeley went on to study her Ph.D on parasites,” he said. “She was the one who said I needed to stop by her lab to see the mind-controlling parasites they collect to teach a parasitology course.”
Likewise, his hummingbird series came from a friend who started a hummingbird lab.
“I would help him and I got to know all of these crazy experiments scientists were conducting to understand the bird, lights and eating habits,” Varma said. “Then the bats and bees came from what Nat Geo asked me to cover.”
In addition to the science of the subjects, Varma’s work exposes an artistic element to his subjects.
“(Art) is an integral part of taking the picture itself,” he said. “It’s not something I plan out entirely in advance or achieve in the selections of the photos afterwards. It’s a back-and-forth that happens when I take the photos.”
One of Varma’s more artistic photo series is about parasites, which includes photos of the parasitoid wasp.
“This is a subject that people don’t really want anything to do with,” he said. “So it’s my job as a photographer to take pictures that interest them and get them past this visceral aversion they have. My job is to convince people to learn something about fascinating creatures.”
To do so, Varma is constantly evaluating his craft.
“I’m always trying to find out how I can make a creature more beautiful, or how I can make it more mysterious and more surprising,” he said. “So I’m tweaking and adapting. I’m seeing how a worm reflects light in an interesting way, or how one perspective isn’t quite enough for people to make sense of what’s happening. I constantly reiterate images until I get that gut reaction that tells me I’m on to something.”
That reaction, Varma said, usually comes when he reaches the intersection between familiarity and mystery.
“It has to have some complexity and surprise that will convince the reader to stop aimlessly flipping through the magazine and read the caption,” he said.
Sometimes getting that shot requires Varma to build and use his own equipment.
“Typically the cameras and lenses off the shelf are pretty good, so what I end up doing is inventing the lighting apparatus,” he said. “I came up with a fiber-optic lighting system that, in a lot of ways, borrowed from the scientific community and blending that with tools in the photography world to create tiny beams of light that can focus on just the features I want to highlight in my pictures.”
Varma’s career in macro photography has been a “surprising wild ride,” he said.
“I realized that what I do can give me access to the natural world as well as the ability to explore so many different environments,” he said. “Along the way I recognized that I could contribute my own discoveries to the scientific community through photography.”
Still, the personal rewards of his career are more social.
“I have experiences at the end of talks, like the one I’ll do in Park City, where someone will come up to me and tell me that they used to think bugs were gross, but now think they’re cool,” he said. “I can’t think of a better motivation than to reshape people’s relationships to the natural world.”
BalletNext opens the curtain on “Nutcracker’s Greatest Hits,” which features a Park City twist, on Wednesday.
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