Robert Llewellyn answers questions related to seeds, with a focus on his recent book, Seeing Seeds (2015):
How did you first start to photograph seeds and when?
I published a book with Timber Press in 2011 called Seeing Trees. I wanted to learn about the life of trees, so I began studying them closely. I would bring parts of the tree like leaves, flowers, fruit, and seeds into the studio and photograph them on glowing light tables. The images were reminiscent of 18th- and 19th-century botanical paintings.
What initially piqued your interest in seeds?
From studying trees I went on to publish another book called Seeing Flowers. The flowers would attract pollinators and then drop the petals and construct seedpods, usually bearing no resemblance to the flower. I studied the seeds and realized plants all have a plan to produce offspring.
I became very interested in this transformation and created with Timber Press another book called Seeing Seeds.
Why and how did you begin to work on the Seeing Seeds project?
I had published a book on trees and flowers and wanted to know even more about how the plant world worked. So, I went to the source — seeds. It was a whole new world. I chose this project and suddenly seeds are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. I began collecting them.
I have been collecting things forever. I think when you have things to collect you start to really see the planet. I don't think it matters what you collect.
How long did you work on it?
For two years. Timber Press wanted to publish the book and the editor, Tom Fischer, gave me list of seeds to find. It is really not work. It is fun.
How do you source your seed and decide on what kinds to photograph?
Most of the seeds I collected myself. I really like having a project where you collect things. I still see seeds everywhere. Most seeds are hiding in plain sight. Many we eat. Some came from Whole Foods. Many gardeners knew about my project and would give me specimens.
How did you choose the seeds?
According to Kew Gardens there are 240,000 flowering plants on this planet, all of which have flowers, fruit, and seeds. The mission of the seed is to create offspring, as is the mission of all life on Earth.
We first selected categories of seeds with the editor of our book. One was food; some of the seeds came from food stores. Seeds have protein and starch that keep warm-blooded animals, like humans, alive. We eat seeds every day.
All seeds are unique. I went for the most unique ones I could find. Like the Devils Claw, which will draw blood, to the castor bean that shoots its seeds 30 feet. If you heat and press castor beans you will get castor oil, which is very slippery. The oil is often used as a laxative — or as an oil in race cars. If you eat the seed raw you will die. The seeds contain ricin, one the most deadly poisons on earth.
These are beautiful seeds, each one different.
Do you have to prepare them before taking the photographs? How?
I look at them from all angles with the camera. They are 3D so there are a lot of choices of how you look at them and photograph them. I explore the seed for a while and at some point it will call out to me. I often have 10 or more versions of the same seed.
What technology do you use to take your photography? Can you describe it in detail?
I brought seeds into my studio to photograph them. Some are a foot across and some are the size of the period at the end of this sentence. To make the image sharp from top to bottom, I used a technique called "focus stacking". I would put the seeds on a glowing light table and do a series of photographs at different focus points from top to bottom, overlapping the sharp parts. I then loaded the images into stacking software, which rendered one image that was perfectly sharp.
Can you talk us through your photography technique?
Some seeds are very small, so getting the whole specimen sharp is a challenge. I make a series of photographs, as many as 100, each at a different focus point. I start at the top and move downward to the bottom. It works sort of like an MRI.
I then take all of the images and load into software (like Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus) and they get stitched together, using the sharp parts, into one image that is infinitely sharp.
Roughly how many kinds of seeds have you photographed to date?
I have over 2,000 seed images. We selected from those to create Seeing Seeds.
What does this work tell us about the life of seeds?
I found all plants have a plan to make seeds and reproduce. An example is the blackberry lily, often found in forests. It is a small plant with brilliant orange flowers. The colored flower is to attract bees and other pollinators. Plants often depend on animals to get pollinated.
Then a transformation occurs. The orange party dress falls away and the blackberry lily makes a black seed pod that looks identical to a real blackberry. Bears and other forest animals eat the seeds which eventually go through their digestive system. They transport the seed.
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