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Field Notes
Liittschwager
Photograph by Anand Varma
David Liittschwager
Interview by Glynnis McPhee
How did you collect the microfauna for this story?

I borrowed some from the research scientists on the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) vessel. We spent a lot of time finding the nicest specimens from what they had gathered in their large net. But there are certain creatures that are more delicate, so we would go out in a small boat and gather those with a small hand net. For the really fragile ones, you don't even want to use a hand net. We used just a plain white bucket for those.

What would you do once you collected them?

Well, I had a very short time with them—I'd have to return them to the scientists or I would return them to the ocean. If it goes well you're done in 15 minutes. Other times you'd work with one specimen for an hour, sometimes two.

How many microfauna did you shoot in a day?

On average I'd shoot between 10 and 25. It was a tough story to edit.

And you photographed them right there on the boat?

The studio is right there on the research vessel but when I was out on the smaller boat I set up a studio [back on shore]. I tried to photograph in a small boat, but at that magnification it was very difficult. Because everything was moving and I had to keep my head down and really focus in on the specimen, I'd get seasick instantly.

A lot of the fish are transparent—was it difficult to gather and photograph "invisible" creatures?

Well, in the case of the flounder, we didn't even know we had this fish until I was pouring out the bucket to consolidate specimens and there was this big "plop" that didn't make any sense. I held up a flashlight and I didn't see the fish, but I could see the shadow it cast. It was really cool. The puzzle for me as a photographer was to get something that is made to be invisible to show.

How did you do that?

The reason you can see the flounder and other transparent specimens in the photographs is because I photographed them in a petri dish, at high magnification, with an extremely contrasty light source.

Was there anything you caught that you were really excited about?

I would have to say that finding and being able to photograph a Swordfish larva and an egg as it was hatching was extrememly fortunate. I didn't go in with a list of certain fish I wanted to photograph because you never really know what you're going to get. There are all these tiny larval stages of crustaceans and fish whose primary form of hiding from predators is to be invisible. I was just happy that I actually succeeded in finding those types of specimens and got to photograph them.