Local Photographer Zooms In On Small Neighbors

Artistsí works are often inspired by parts of the natural world that are readily seen or felt. But one Pittsburgh artist is diving deeper into local water sources to find beauty for her compositions. The Allegheny Frontís Dennis Funk brings us her story.

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OPEN: Artistsí works are often inspired by parts of the natural world that are readily seen or felt. But one Pittsburgh artist is diving deeper into local water sources to find beauty for her compositions. The Allegheny Frontís Dennis Funk brings us her story.

JOHNSON: I think the spot was just right out there. Itís all so different; all this sand is new.

FUNK: On a damp afternoon, photographer Erika Johnson climbs over the brush and branches along the north bank of the Allegheny River. Sheís in search of the exact place where she collected a water sample a few months earlier

JOHNSON: Iíve got a little jar of water and rocks. And in this jar I know that I have lots of stenostomum, and some carchesium. There are also apparently some ostrocods though I never saw any until today.

FUNK: As you might have guessed, the things she describes are microorganisms living in the sample. For the last several months, Johnsonís been filming and photographing the lives of these creatures for her latest project, called small neighbors.

Her photos and videos depict a liquid world where hair-thin worms wriggle their way through flowery fields of translucent zooplankton, and where we might find an insect-looking creature, known as a Cyclops, using itís antennae to lazily guide itself through an endless scape of blue.

Johnson started looking at small aquatic creatures after learning how to make a homemade microscope at Carnegie Mellon Universityís STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.

JOHNSON: We made these very simple little microscopes out of webcams; it was so simple it was ridiculous. We just unscrewed some screws, flipped the lens around and put the thing back together again.

FUNK: But Johnsonís interest in this new technology overwhelmed her so much that she had to force herself to put the webcam aside and focus on her work with a conventional camera.

JOHNSON: But then I had a birthday. I had some flowers. They stayed on my mantle for too long. I was about to throw the flowers out and I noticed the water was really cloudy. And I just got curious and got the little camera out again. And that was when I really saw my first animals moving around. And I was just completely hooked. I just fell in love.

FUNK: Johnson then started collecting samples from local rivers and ponds, capturing this invisible little neighborhood with her new camera. She says she enjoys being able to observe these small creatures while theyíre alive ó floating through murky waters, and watching single-celled populations multiply after adding a grain of rice. But through this new lens she discovered more than these stunning visuals.

JOHNSON: The thing that I learned most from this project is just that sort of unfathomable complexity of our ecological environment. Iím as likely as anyone to dangle my feet in a pond or rinse my face off with water from a fountain, but now I know that when I do that, my hand is covered with tiny, one-celled animals that have their own lives and mysterious and beautiful existence.

FUNK: Back at the river, Johnson is getting ready to release her jar full of microorganisms into the water. Having watched many generations of the cityís tiniest residents flourish and die over the last few months it is understandably difficult for her to just let them go.

JOHNSON: Oh, my little flatworms. I think Iím gonna, sort of, not pour it, but Iím gonna, sort of set it in there.

FUNK: After walking back along the riverís edge, Johnson turns back to the spot, calling out ìGoodbye kids,î before stooping down to fetch another sample from the river.

For the Allegheny Front, Iím Dennis Funk.

OUTRO: Erika Johnson will be exhibiting small neighbors and hosting a workshop this February at assemble gallery in Garfield.