C = Claire Rhepsholdt, R = Roger Hangarter, B = Betsy StirratView podcast page
Spider Web Transcript
C: Welcome to A Thing of Beauty. I’m your host, Claire Repsholdt, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University studying English and History. This podcast is part of Themester, a themed semester brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences. This fall we are exploring beauty as a core component of human experience. In each episode, we’ll invite faculty to share an object of beauty with us. So, let’s meet our guest.
C: Welcome to A Thing of Beauty. I’m Claire Repsholdt, and I’m here with Distinguished Professor of Biology Roger Hangarter and Director of the Grunwald Gallery Betsy Stirret. Thank you for being here today!
R & B: Thanks/Thank you.
C: So if you wouldn’t mind, one of you-- Maybe we’ll start with Roger: If you could describe the object you’ve chosen for us today.
R: So the object is actually, it’s a photograph of an object, um, but the object we’re talking about is the photograph. What’s in the photograph is a spider web, a common everyday thing that people see all over the place, and what I did was I got in close and was able to take a photograph that illustrated various properties of the web and the colors that you can get through the physics of the properties of the web and the result is a pretty interesting and spectacular-looking object.
C: So, Betsy, as the curator in the room, could you describe a little bit of the visual experience of the object?
B: Yeah. Well, I was ex-extremely excited by these pictures Roger showed me because, uhm, first of all, they’re mysterious to me, and to me that is so important when you look at a beautiful object, that you don’t completely understand everything about it.
What I see in this picture is-- I see the webbing. You can’t really understand it. It’s not linear, at all, I mean, even though it’s made of lines. It’s completely unclear exactly how this web is constructed, so that is, a mysterious part of it. The other part is the prismatic light that is reflected from these beautiful strands of web that this spider has created, and those prisms are moving, they’re moving in space, and, I guess, it’s ust, it’s almost like an atmospheric... Something you might see in the night sky or something, and so that was-- to me, what, I guess, one of the most striking aspects of this picture.
C: I got this picture over email, and when I picked it out and opened it I thought certainly that it was something digitally made or that it was like a picture of a galaxy kind of a thing. It took me awhile and almost before I printed it did I completely understand that it was a spider’s web. Could you talk to me about how you captured the photograph?
R: Yeah so-- I mean these spider webs are everyplace, but you usually don’t see them just because of your angle relative to the lighting, and they’re invisible--which is how they work, right? They trap things and don’t see them and bump into them--but if you get at the right angle, relative to the direction of the light, all of a sudden the light is being affected by the properties of the web, and it breaks it up into the spectrum, and you get interference patterns and so on.
So what I-- I noticed a glimmer in the distance, from these webs. There were a bunch of them in the tops of the plants, and I got down with my macro lens and got up close and suddenly the colors just took over the image, and I think I spent half the day out there just taking pictures of these webs.
C: And how many pictures do you think you took?
R: Oh, I probably took about 500 pictures, but there’re about 20 or so that I liked.
C: So why did you pick this one out of the 20 or so that you liked? What was particularly beautiful about this one?
R: Uh. This one. Part of it’s-- as a biologist, I look for the biology in addition to the other aspects of the beauty, but this-- When you start looking at it closely, you see where the spider is. It’s a very small spider, so it doesn’t stand out at first, but you see it standing on the bottom, uh, part of the web, which is a multilayered, very dimensional web, and you can see structures of the architecture, how it’s woven together to hold it in place to give it the ability to withstand the wind and so on.
But really, what struck me most was the diffraction patterns, the interference patterns of the light, and how if you don’t have the right angle, you have like a five or ten degree flexibility there to see those colors. If you move any further than that from the direction of the sun, its invisible, and the whole aspect of it—
You know, it’s different when you’re taking the photographs. You know, I see all this other stuff around me other than what’s actually in the photograph, but when I see the photograph, of course, that’s what I see, is all the other stuff too, but these-- When I looked at these on the big screen the first time, I was completely dazzled. I had no idea that there was so much in there. I just thought there’d be a few interesting patterns, but they just draw you in.
C: Now, Betsy, as someone who works with many photographers and artists of many mediums, what strikes you about this picture? We’ve heard from Roger the biological and physical perspectives on it, but thinking in comparison to photographic technique, or color, could you add some insight there?
B: Yeah, I think it’s a great composition. Compositionally it works beautifully. One thing that struck me, and I don’t know if I’m going to be answering your question--but, from my perspective, the spider is the least important thing in this, and I think that’s, what’s, I think, very interesting about the way that maybe biologist might think about the picture, and it very, maybe an artist or a visual curator or somebody might look at a picture like this.
He’s shown me many pictures that don’t have the spider in it. And it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t really matter. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think that just the visual atmosphere of the thing is really what the picture is about. It was made by a living thing, and maybe just knowing that makes it that much more mysterious and intriguing.
C: Mhm. So when you were choosing the picture together, how did you go about talking about what you found beautiful? Where was the overlap between your biological experience and your more artistic experience that you saw in the picture that made it such a perfect object for this conversation?
R: Well I think it would be more of a collaborative, effort. You know, everything Betsy said I agree with. It’s the colors, it’s the patterns, and the mystery, but, I thought, as an object for people to get through that mystery, having the spider in the photograph… helps. You know, they can understand that that’s actually a spider web and this was created by the living thing, and it’s as beautiful as anything. You know, there’s so much intricacy in this, in the colors and the patterns, the way the webs are hung together.
And so, I think we sort of agreed that it’s the overall patterns, colors, textures and things that you see in it that’s really the striking thing. But as a biologist I’m always trying to make sure people understand the natural world around them instead of other ideals. and, so it, sort of, that’s my job.
C: Mhm, so would you use this as a classroom object, or?
R: I--Yes I would, yeah.
C: And what kind—
R: Except I teach plant biology, so--
C: So, but, would you ever bring it up to illuminate any particular idea, is that how your photography works? Or do you really keep it for like more museum presentation?
R: Well initially I was taking photographs just documenting what’s out there. I’m really fascinated by all the different biodiversity we have in Indiana, but the more I do it the more I try to make them just compelling photographs so that, cause y’know people aren’t going to get to the biology if they’re not drawn to it in the first place.
You could talk for an hour about the science in this image because the way those light patterns, the way it forms these little strips of color. All of that is based on physics and so on, so you can spend forever talking about-- You got the biology of the spider, you got the architecture and prop-physical properties of the web, you have these beautiful colors but, really, what it comes down to is just, you look at that and you go, “wow that’s really something.”
C: So how much does it come down to-- And this would be a question for either of you, I think: How much does it come down to the actual printed photograph, and how much does it come down to what the camera reveals in the picture?
R: Well I meant that’s actually a pretty fascinating thing in itself. Y’know-- You couldn’t see this by eye (B: Right). You have to take this with a camera because the way you see those bands is you have to be out of focus, and our eyes don’t do that, and so the camera gives you a way to see things that, y’know, we don’t normally see.
B: So selective focus came into play here, and that’s why he ended up with this image, but it’s true. And—and that’s, that’s a great, sort of, question is: the translation of actual, of nature, through this camera lens, y’know what else can be done?
Roger’s done lots of things with it--that make us see things we wouldn’t normally see. And that is a great, I think, sort of insight into the beauty of nature is that we can see things that we wouldn’t see by just average day…
C: Mhm. And how would you compare it to, say: somebody who was using a painting, or a sculpture, or something else to capture a moment like this? Like where… Where does the photography really change it into something extraordinary?
B: That’s a good question.
R: That’s a really hard question.
B: And a difficult one, I can tell you, because I’m an artist as well, and I-- Roger has been great about sharing a lot of his images with me, and I do a lot of work that’s related to science and biology, and I can tell you something, that, it-- You can’t make a painting that does this. It’s not possible, so I’ve tried, honestly.
There’s something about the lens-based work that creates a vibrancy that is very very hard to capture unless you’re doing lens-based work. Unless you’re making photographs or video, if you’re using paint and you’re using, y’know-- of course transmission of light from paint is very different than what you get from a screen or from a print like this, and so, so the feel of it is completely different. So, what you’re doing is you’re dealing with light in a very different way when you’re dealing with creating a piece of art that’s a static thing, so that’s a real challenge, I think, for artists.
C: I think it’s very interesting, in particular this photograph because it is so digital and in the way that you’re talking about the natural world and what it reveals to you about a very intimate experience with nature, and yet, it’s mediated by something that is very technological, so I think it, it gives a really interesting dichotomy between the relationship of man and nature and man and technology, and I think that there’s a lot of exciting work there that even though the technological aspect of it is so present, you also kind of forget entirely about it when you see the image.
R: Yeah, the technology is there to enable the capture of images, and y’know if you just go out for a walk in the woods you probably walk past things like this all the time. I do. And it’s only under certain conditions where you’re—you just happen to catch that glimmer of light and you go, “oh, now that’s something different.” Y’know, it’s not a chipmunk. You know, it’s something really different, and you can go work it and get images like this.
Most of the ones I shared with Betsy came from one day, and y’know, every one of them that I shared with her I really thought was pretty spectacular, and there were a lot of other ones too that were spectacular, but those are ones that just.. everything came together with the shapes and the angles of the light and so on.
B: These images are more transcendental than maybe others that Roger’s made--and I haven’t seen, a fraction of what he’s made, but he’s showed me, some, some things, and these have a little bit, of a little more otherworldly character, and I-- Course, that’s why I’m particularly attracted to them because that’s kind of the thing that I’m interested in, and that’s what I think is beautiful, in the world.
C: Yeah, yeah. There’s a fantasy element. So when you’re going and finding these unexpected moments, are you going out in pursuit of beauty when you do that? Like when, when you enter the forest or wherever you are taking pictures, are you thinking “I’m looking for beauty”? Or how do you go--and you too when you’re creating your work--do you think, “I’m seeking a beautiful moment”?
R: I go out because every time one goes out and watches and looks and observes, you see beauty. It’s there, right. It doesn’t have to be made by us or fabricated by us, it’s just there. And, you know, it’s something that I find, you know, a walk in the woods and I come home and I’ve seen so much stuff, and I tell people about some of it and they don’t believe me because they’ve not seen it, and they may have been walking with me, and you know I go with other people sometimes, and I come back and show them the photographs that I have, and they go “I had no idea that that was there.”
And some, you know, it’s just experience. I do it enough that I can experience that. But I go out into the woods anticipating that I will see beauty. I don’t know what I’m looking for necessarily. There are some times when I do, when there’re certain animals around or something…
C: So you’re not demanding it, but you’re open to it.
R: I’m open to it, yes, that’s exactly right.
C: And what about you?
B: I think when you are making…art, you-- Almost everybody I know strives for some kind of beauty. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily what other people might think is beautiful. I know I’ve found it very… challenging to make things that I think are beautiful enough, and are as beautiful as something you would see in nature because, to me, the natural world is intrinsically more beautiful than anything a human can make.
So I think, that’s a challenge that I have and a frustration that I have as a studio artist, to make a painting that I, first of all, feel like, “okay I can let that outta here and not be ashamed of it,” and secondly that it’s beautiful enough that I think it has-- has something, but it’s very difficult to do, and, um, I think, um, especially knowing the art world, so much art is not beautiful, and so—
So I would to prefer to consume my--the beauty that I consume by going into nature and seeing it there, , that’s much more pleasurable to me than going to an art museum. I love art. Love it. You know, it’s great, but if I’m looking for beauty that’s not where I go.
C: I see. So what would you describe the experience of being in a museum for, as a director of the Grunwald I’m interested--
B: Well, I mean art has a lot of qualities, and beauty’s one of them. It’s only one. You know, it might be provocative. It might be politically interesting. It might ha-- It has a statement to make, for sure. So all of those things are valuable, too, but if we’re just talking about beauty, I don’t think an art museum is where I would go.
C: Okay, well. And thinking about that then as a kind of separation from your work at the museum, particularly, your pursuit of beauty. How do you bring the beauty back into those conversations in the gallery? Or how do you bring beauty back into your conversations in the lab or in the classroom after you’ve experienced these things and documented them so well, how does it come back into your discipline?
R: So… and I teach plant physiology, so I teach-- It’s more molecular, biochemistry types of things, but I start every one of my lectures with a photograph that I took that week… or within a week or so of the class. And I just have that on the screen, and then we talk about it for a couple of minutes before we go into the topic, and often I can link them to some aspect of the topic, but what I try to do is use these as a tool to get students to actually open their eyes to more than what they’ll see on their iPhone screen or their computer screen or, y’know—In their daily activities, maybe they’ll decide that going out into the woods might be a fun thing to do today… to see some of these things.
So I do integrate a lot of photographs into my lectures, when I can. Sometimes I use them to document things that are happening that are relevant to my lectures, so, for me, they’re beautiful objects, and they also have a utility in getting people to understand and think about scientific principles and properties.
C: So it sounds like you think of these photographs, in particular, more as impetus for wonder, like engagement with what you’re doing and kind of like the beginning, like urgency to go out and discover more than explanatory or like the only thing that matters. It’s kind of like your hook or your beginning place from which you can look into other things.
R: Yeah, in some regards. I use-- I do use them for that. Personally, my satisfaction in taking the photographs is having something that looks like that when I’m at the end of the day.
C: So it’s joy too.
R: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. No, one of my favorite things is getting home and loading up the images on my computer and putting them on a big screen and going through them and just seeing what I actually managed to capture from what I saw that day. Sometimes it’s a pretty powerful thing, and it makes everything else, all the troubles of the day or whatever, go away.
B: Exactly. That’s called making art. That’s what that’s called.
C: Mhm. So how do you, how do you treat beauty in the, in the workplace or in your professional discipline?
B: Well, I think ever-- It’s such an enigmatic quality. I mean, particularly, at least in the art world, I think, people define it so many different ways, and-- Of course, it depends on people’s interests, depends on their educational level, depends on what culturally people think is beautiful, what we’re supposed to think is beautiful.
Some people only equate the idea of beauty to human beings, to beautiful human beings. They don’t understand that the world can be beautiful. Or it has to be a landscape. It has to be specific kind of landscape. It has to be beautiful. So I think people are fairly narrow-minded in terms of what their definition of beauty can be. So, I’ve found that in curating exhibits and organizing things at the Grunwald, we-- You know, beauty always comes into play, however, it’s defined in incredibly varied ways, and I think people would always say that they were striving for beauty when they’re putting together an exhibit. However, it doesn’t always appear to be beautiful.
C: So it’s not always aesthetic as much as it-- (B: Exactly) It’s some sort of feeling---feeling state.
B: Yes, and that’s a really important aspect of beauty, too. We think tend to think of it as visual, and it is visual, but there’s a lot more to beauty than seeing. It’s experiencing it.
If we’re out in the field--and Roger I know has felt this when he’s out--and if I--if I go somewhere where I feel is a beautiful place, it’s not only what I’m seeing it’s what I’m experiencing. It’s what I’m hearing, what I’m feeling; temperature, environment. It’s the-- (R: odors), the smell, yeah, the odors. That’s so critical. And, of course, the sound. You know, all of that comes into play, and that-- That’s what makes a beautiful thing, so beauty becomes not only just “that’s a beautiful thing.” It’s the experience of it. It’s the whole experience.
C: So do you ever--either of you--identify something as beautiful and not have the urge to document it in a photograph or a sculpture or a painting?
B: No, no. That never happens.
B: Yeah. And that’s a difficult thing because sometimes when you’re so busy taking pictures of something you don’t see it. And, it’s like our travel-- You know when you travel. And, you know-- You’re so busy documenting everything you don’t even know you were there, right. And so that’s, that’s a danger, but. I always feel like you have—you have to grab it.
R: Yeah, I mean I try to grab what I can, but I also, uh—Sometimes I’m just content watching. You know, and I’ll watch for awhile, and then I’ll go ok maybe I’ll try to capture some of that. Because, you don’t—I mean especially with biological things, they’re moving. You know, even the spider web is moving ‘cause it’s windy or breezy--just a little breeze will change things. The sun’s changing in the sky, so where these kind of things are happening in the web changes. So you have to keep moving around. You’re watching. I--You know, and I’ll study things for awhile before I even take a picture. Unless it’s something that just, sort of, flew in, like a bird: I try to get a picture, and then I hope that maybe I have a chance to study it a little bit and understand more about it, so I can take the real picture, the one that you want.
You know, a lot-- The other one would be the documentation one, just to convince myself I saw it, or, sometimes, I use them so I can identify what the thing is, ‘cause I don’t always know. You know, there’s a lot of biology out there, and it’s really hard to know what all these things are.
B: And time is an important aspect of this. You know, as he said, it’s the right moment. Sometimes you don’t have time. Sometimes you have to be somewhere else or other things are pressing or the sun’s going down or the tide’s coming in or… something, and that moment is only gonna be there for a short period of time, that beautiful moment--and there might be other beautiful moments but to get that one you have to do it right then.
C: So do you think that beauty is important in these acts of creation. Like, can you ever create something without it having been the instigator or very central to an art piece? Like, does it always begin there?
R: Well, I don’t create any of these things. They exist, and I look for them. But I do, at times, think about how to capture something that you wouldn’t be able to just walk up to it and get. There-- And these are good examples, these spider webs ‘cause you have to be there at the right time of day so that the angle of the sun relative to the web is right. You have access to it from the right side so that you can get that light coming through the web the way it is in this photograph. And there are times when I actually will think hard about all the things that I would need to capture the kind of image I want of something, and so in that sense I do create the photographs.
B: Well, when you’re in the studio it’s a whole different ball game. You’re-- Depending on how your practice practice is. It could be a situation where you’re responding to something. You want to capture something, but you cant do it, and so you’re trying to figure out which process would work the best--and I’m talking about painting right now--would work the best to capture something as close to what you want to do as you can, and so it’s a very, actually very intuitive--at least this is the way I work--very intuitive and very challenging process because there’s a lot of things that are failures, lots and lots of failures. So it’s like taking photographs, in the sense that you take five hundred and twenty are good. Unfortunately paintings are a lot like that, so you end up scrapping a lot of work. So, it’s a matter of trying to capture a moment, really. It’s just making your hand do that is really hard. It really is.
C: It becomes a technological exercise, like how do I separate my hand from my mind? In a way…
B: It is technology. It is. Like, how can you make the technology do what you want it to do? And it hardly ever does.
R: Even with the photographs. You know you have to-- You do have to develop an intuition because you just don’t go out there with your iPhone and capture photographs like this. Well, you could, but it’s hard. But, you know, you have to know what kind of lens to use and a little bit about light, (B: light) the properties of light, and a number of things about the instrument you’re using to capture it. But you have to learn enough of it that it becomes more intuitive. You can’t be sitting there, thinking about what do I have to do with the f-stop?, what do I have to do with this? You just sort of have to do it. ‘Cause these things are fleeting, and if you’re not quick, it’s really hard to do this.
C: And could you take this picture without your knowledge of biology and physics?
R: Yes, yes you could. As long as you know how to use the camera.
B: But, I mean, Roger’s been doing this for a long time. He’s learned an enormous amount over time how t-- how to do this, and so he can draw on that extensive knowledge and the extensive knowledge of cameras he has.
C: I was going to say that it seems to me that the two are--are quite intertwined, and what you talk about the angle of the sun and the physical properties of the light is something that I, as an English and History major, was not—was not thinking about even in this photo, so to me it seems the two are quite well together in this.
R: Yeah, they do. And I-- My specialty in plant science is photo biology, how plants respond to light, so I learned, you know, through my training, the properties of light, and that helped me a lot get to where I am with the camera because it really is the properties of light that determines how you get pictures, and so I was able to, I think, move faster with my photography than I might have if I didn’t know any of that in the first place.
C: And when did you pick it up? Photography I mean.
R: Well, I took photographs a long time ago with film, but it was so expensive and I couldn’t afford to do it, so I didn’t do very much, and it was only really in the last ten years when digital cameras hit the world and started to have, you know, enough resolution that it made it worth it, and I can’t put them down now, so.
C: It seems to me also--going back to what you were saying being a photobiology specialist that your understanding of plants and your relationship to plants is quite similar to the camera. Like, the two and the way that you’re able to see things and understand the world through both seems like you’re almost a scholar of light more than anything else.
B: That’s really interesting because I think that’s one thing Roger and I have in common, is: The work that I do is about light. The paintings are about light. So that’s why I think I’m--I’m so drawn to his pictures, and I think they really mean something to me. That’s what I’m looking at here is the light.
C: Yeah. So you would, you’re both kind of in love with light, a little bit, in pursuit of light, which is really exciting.
R: Mhm. Mhm.
C: Well, I think we’ve covered most of our topics of beauty, but I like to end every episode to ask about, for students that aren’t going to be able to get to see this image immediately—how would you suggest--and you’ve touched on this a little bit—but how would you suggest that they could have a beautiful experience today? A beauty tip, if you will, for our student listeners.
R: Take your earphones out of your ears, put your phone in your pocket or your purse or hide it, and observe. ‘Cause you can learn a lot by observing.
B: I think what Roger says is right. I think that the only way for people to appreciate the world is to have some curiosity about it, and they wont have any curiosity about it if they aren’t looking at it, and so.
C: Throw open the windows and let the light come in, I think.
R: That’s right.
C: Great. Thank you so much for being here today.
R & B: Thanks. Thank you