The photographer Jan Schlegel travels the world in search of insects and sea creatures for his series. He either finds his subjects in specialised dealerships or at marketplaces. He photographs his catches on white backgrounds, isolating them from any context and using a rare and expensive, historic development process, which allows the printed images to reveal their full potential. The series invites the viewer to discover the unsuspected details and beauty of these rarely considered creatures.
Schlegel speaks about the meaning behind his images, his particular approach to the work, how working on this series has influenced him and what his hopes for his imagery are.
What did you want to emphasise with your Of Monster & Dragon and Creatures of the Seven Seas series?
My work is not about scientific documentation. Crossing paths with spiders, beetles or other creepy crawlies, you can observe how some people panic, run away or even kill the insects, as though they’d been faced with a monster or a dragon. I’m fascinated by the beauty of the creatures. It’s as though they come from another world. I’d like to get people to become more aware of these animals.
What were the biggest challenges when working on these series?
Taking the pictures was actually the easiest part. The preparation, in particular of the insects, was more challenging. Learning the particular development processes that I worked with, calotype and platinum, was the toughest part. I believe I’ve produced the largest-format, calotype prints in this quality in the world.
Please explain about the particular development processes you used for your spectacular prints.
Of Monster & Dragon was produced as calotype prints, while Creatures of the Seven Seas was produced as rare and expensive platinum prints.
I consider these the best possible processes to achieve a perfect representation down to the tiniest detail. In both cases you start by producing a 56x76cm negative. In the case of the calotype process, I did it myself, as I’d photographed with a 4×5“ medium-format camera. In the case of the platinum, where I’d photographed the fish with a Leica S, a laboratory converted the data into negatives. Prints were then made from these negatives, resulting in pictures of this size.
How does the calotype process work and what advantages does it have?
It’s a multi-layered process where all the work is done by hand. To start with, the salt solution is spread out on a very large piece of watercolour paper, then left to dry. Then a silver nitrate solution is spread on the paper, so as to create light-sensitive silver chloride. It’s very tough to get an even layer all over the paper. The exposure with the negative transforms the silver chloride in the picture, which gives place to metallic silver. Then it is fixed with ammonium thiosulphate and a lightly, golden-coloured borax tint, followed by a two-hour rinse, which ensures maximum durability.
How does the platinum process work?
A platinum solution, which also contains iron-oxalate, is spread with a paintbrush on high-quality, smooth cotton paper. In the case of platinum prints, the quality of the paper plays an essential role. After is has dried, this layer is exposed with the negative under a UV lamp for one and a half to three hours. Each hand-made print is a one-of-a-kind and there is no other photographic process that produces such depth: the platinum process can produce the largest number of grey levels, and brings the deepest structure to the black.
Where did you get the insects from?
I collected some of the insects, like the scorpion and the grasshopper, myself. I travel a lot, and was able to bring some back from Africa – like the stick insect, for example. I also purchased some of them in Paris at Deyrolle, an old and well-known establishment specialising in curiosities. When I’ve found an interesting item somewhere, I’ve photographed it and had the shop determine the species.
Where did you find the sea creatures?
Around the world – at fish markets in Porto (Portugal), on Zanzibar (Tanzania), in Hong Kong, in Essaouira (Morocco) and in Murmansk (Russia). Then I’d take my “catch” to the hotel to photograph it. Beforehand I always made sure that the animals will still be processed afterwards.
How did you set up the animals?
The Of Monster & Dragon series thrives on the fact that the objects are very symmetrical; but when you collect or buy them, insects aren’t like that at all. You have to water steam them first, then fix them perfectly symmetrically with a pin.
How did the work on these series influence you?
Insects and sea creatures are extremely diverse – that was something I hadn’t really been aware of. Another side effect is that I have banned plastic from my household, because plastic is destroying the ocean’s unique beauty. I want my art to provoke a new way of seeing. We prefer to look at fish from a distance, and we don’t like to touch them. However, it is worth taking a closer look at them – the same as the insects.
Do you have any plans for moving forward with this project?
I’m planning a nature trilogy. My first two series have dealt with the fascinating worlds of insects and of sea creatures. Now I’m working on a third series with floral objects.
Jan C. Schlegel was born in Triberg, Germany, in 1965. He discovered a passion for black and white photography during a workshop with Walter Schels. Toni Schneiders, a successful photographer in his region, became his mentor. Schlegel works a lot in portrait photography, and focusses his attention on issues of globalisation and identity. His pictures can been seen around the world in galleries, exhibitions and at art fairs.
A portfolio with Schlegel’s work just appeared in LFI 6.2019.