7 minute read

Buried Beauty

As hordes of cicadas emerge from strange subterranean surroundings, Chris Linder explores the uncanny allure of nature’s most enigmatic insect

Spring, Maryland, 2021. For the first time in 17 years, billions of bugs are swarming and singing throughout the Old Line State. The connotations are practically biblical, the scale immense. The culprits? Cicadas. Abnormal, reclusive creatures, they’ve existed in a thriving underground bio network for almost two decades. Now ‘Brood X’ has been unleashed onto an unsuspecting public, misunderstandings are widespread.

Specializing in scientific photography and the extremities of nature, Chris Linder is quick to dismiss the rumors. “Completely harmless,” he reassures. “They don’t bite, sting, or cause itchiness – they’re just innocuous little bugs. They might be completely eccentric, but they’re totally gorgeous, too.” Emerging from an interest in oceanography, Chris has carved out something of an unorthodox pathway into photography. “I didn’t pick up a camera until my late twenties. I went to the United States Naval Academy in Maryland, which is a military college. I studied oceanography at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, before returning to the Navy. I guess my background is somewhat unusual in that regard.” As his enthusiasm grew, Chris paired a passion for education with a keen interest in image creation. It’s this zeal for learning that characterizes his outlook and approach. Making complex scientific processes accessible to the public, Chris’s photos are a clear, digestible means of imparting knowledge. With his GFX50S, he was able to highlight the idiosyncrasies of these insects in startling detail.

Two cicadas on wooden fence

Photo 2021 © Chris Linder | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro, 1/150 sec at F9.0, ISO 200

“This project was the first in my backyard, and only the second I’ve ever shot without having to take a plane to a separate location,” he explains. “News reports covered the surfacing of these cicadas, which is obviously a huge deal here in Maryland. I hadn’t seen these insects since kindergarten! Lo and behold, I soon realized that my neighborhood was at the epicenter of their arrival.” Recognizing the opportunity for a compelling story, Chris contacted his editor at Audubon magazine. All international travel had been canceled, and like the rest of America, he was stuck in the middle of a dull, protracted lockdown. “It would turn out to be something of a false hope, but as the US was starting to reopen, I found that we shared a parallel with these creatures as they re-entered the world. It was also an ideal opportunity to play with the kit I’d accrued over the years. I took a lot of photos at night, lighting these bugs in cool, unusual ways. It was this fascinating ecological occurrence that cascaded across the entire system. Mammals and birds undergo a massive population surge because of this tremendous food source.” Until they materialize above ground, cicadas exist in a buried environment, tunneling and feeding off tree sap. Millions of eggs are laid in thin branches, and then in August, nymphs burst out of the bark, fall to the ground, and burrow once more. “They’re a lot like salmon. Out of sight for most of their lives, until they need to mate. Most of them don’t even make it. Only a tiny fraction survive.”

Using the GFX50S, these were Chris’s first steps into the world of mirrorless image creation. “It was a little weird at first,” he laughs. “But I soon warmed to its accuracy and precision. The focusing was dead-on every time. With traditional DSLRs, that’s not always the case – but this camera was great. The detail in that 51.4-megapixel sensor captures every aspect of these bugs, and it’s amazing to behold.” Indeed, these images expose the microscopic features of the cicadas, underscoring intricacies that could never be perceived with the naked eye. “Working with one lens was very meditative for me. It was single focal length, and very sharp, even when stopped down to F22,” he recalls. As the cicadas scurried onto the stems of neighboring trees, Chris became more aware of his lighting requirements, and discovered just how vivid and camera-friendly the bugs could be. “Once they’re in the branches, you need to be cognizant of the wind, so I used a variety of techniques – flashlights, strobes, and different LEDs. I think these bugs are incredibly photogenic. When they emerge and begin to enter the winged phase, their bodies harden as their shells become accustomed to the environment. During that time, they’re relatively calm and motionless. When I went into the garden at night, they honestly looked like Christmas tree ornaments, dangling up high. Their bodies are so white and translucent, they practically sparkle in the dark. Since I knew I would be working in low light, I needed a sensor that would perform well at high ISOs.”

Though short-lived, this iridescent phase left a lasting impression on Chris as he documented the transition. “The next day, they’re back to being these clumsy bugs that make a lot of racket. But at the peak of that emergent phase, you’re presented with something strangely beautiful. I couldn’t believe it. It was like an alien invasion,” he laughs. “I was deliberately underexposing by about three stops, because I wanted the blackness in these images to really affirm that metaphor.”

Cicada hanging from web against black background

Photo 2021 © Chris Linder | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro, 10 secs at F22, ISO 100

Using the GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro, Chris was able to utilize the close-focusing, mid-telephoto lens for unparalleled detail. “A lot of the pattern shots were done with that lens. It was great for capturing specifics. I became utterly obsessed with my neighbor’s birch tree – it was so evocative as it peeled away to reveal these creatures. The textures of that bark were incredible, and the GF120mm really helped in those instances.” Capturing these settings and surroundings was something that Chris deemed integral. Studies of the cicadas were obviously something he wanted to share with the world, but not at the expense of a varied, dissimilar selection of images. “I approach every project like a movie. I include wides, close-ups, everything. I never want to restrict myself to just one or two beauty shots. I want to be thorough and comprehensive – a whole package. I planned out the shots in my mind. As I was standing there, they even crawled up my body. If you aren’t bug tolerant, this certainly isn’t the material for you! There were so many… moulting inside my camera bags, my softboxes, you name it.”

Often derided as creepy and unappealing subjects for photography, Chris speaks to the idea of subverting expectation. With this project, a stereotypically ugly subject morphs and mutates, revealing an atypical beauty – much like the cicadas themselves. It’s this transformative quality that makes the photographs so engaging. “It’s something I’ve done my whole life. As my specialty is physical oceanography, I never really got to interact with anything conventionally appealing. Dolphins and coral reefs were never on my agenda! For hours on end, I’d work with water samples, retrieved from the depths. From a scientific perspective, it’s fascinating, but certainly not charismatic megafauna. These were things that didn’t make the news. It was great in certain ways, as it provided me with my own niche, and the stories were always phenomenal.”

Group of cicadas on green leaves against black background

Photo 2021 © Chris Linder | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro, 30 secs at F15, ISO 200

As conversation moves to conservation, Chris reminds us of the importance of preserving natural habitats – especially when considering the devastating repercussions for these creatures. “We should try to consider how many billions of these bugs have died under parking lots and newly erected architectural structures. They’re wiped out if their environment is paved over. You don’t even think about the scale of death and destruction. There’s this whole ecosystem existing underground that we practically annihilate through deforestation. That needs to change.”


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