What is Bugging Barbara Norfleet?

A photographer’s imaginary insect world mirrors our own, with beetles flying kites and six-legged warriors on the march

If Barbara Norfleet had been trained as an entomologist, she probably wouldn't have made these photographs. She has built her career documenting human society, as a photographer and as the founder and director of the Photography Collection at Harvard University and as the curator of photography of Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Norfleet's latest book, The Illusion of Orderly Progress (published this month by Alfred A. Knopf), isn't about insects. "The artist means to tell us something about human nature, particularly its more vainglorious, cowardly, and other foolish manifestations," explains bona fide entomologist Edward O. Wilson in his foreword.

Norfleet's themes are universal: tribal warfare, pride, insecurity coupled with a sincere hopefulness for the future. Who can't relate to the top-of-the-world feeling of two harlequin beetles dancing cheek to cheek?

But how did Norfleet get her six-legged subjects to pose for the camera? There were many failed experiments. Live insects just wouldn't cooperate, and recently dead cockroaches held too much appeal to the local ant populace, so dried specimens (mostly coleopterans and orthopterans, and mainly from Central and South America) were mail-ordered from long lists of Latin names in an exhaustive catalogue. Exoskeletons ensured that the dried insects arrived in pretty good shape, but their legs and antennae were too brittle to bend into position. To soften them up, the subjects were placed in a makeshift humidor for 24 hours. Then the real work began. Ideas were carefully sketched out, and the insects were arranged into the desired configurations.

Lacking a proper studio, Norfleet's worlds came to life on top of a baby grand piano. Wire, glue and tape fastened the fragile creations together, and backdrops of the heavens teetered against wine bottles. The "sky" crashing down on all below was cause for much swearing, so the living room was off-limits until Norfleet was sure she had captured each scene on film. She worked for five years on this project and says "my intent was serious, but as usual humor kept getting in the way." We're grateful that it did.

By Elizabeth J. Erskine

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