Arts & Culture

Photographs reveal tiny leaf details

4 min read

Museum of Natural History exhibit points to leaves’ presence, nature’s absence

As a girl growing up on her family’s apple orchard, Amanda Means was surrounded by nature: Apple blossoms in the spring, the hum of bees in the air, summer nights aloft in a tree house.

Her move to New York City during her 20s to study art was a jarring one for the nature lover in Means — instead of earth, pavement; instead of trees, skyscrapers.

The sense of loss she felt is exposed in a new exhibit of Means’ unusual photographs of leaves at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Called “Looking at Leaves,” the exhibit is the third in a series of photographic exhibitions at the museum that explore the intersection of art and science by inviting visitors to look closely at the world around them. The exhibits’ photographs provide unique perspectives on the natural world, exposing hidden details and patterns that may otherwise be difficult to see.

Means’ large black-and-white prints adorning the museum gallery walls appear to almost be X-rays of the leaves, and indeed they almost are. In an unusual departure from the usual photographic technique of using a camera to capture an image and then creating a print from that captured image, Means, whose work has been exhibited widely in the United States and in London, Madrid, and Jerusalem, skips the camera altogether.

Using a photographic enlarger, Means turns the leaf itself into the negative. She puts the leaf into the enlarger and, with the enlarger’s strong light shining through it, casts the resulting image onto the photographic paper below.

The results are stark close-ups of single leaves, ghostly white against a deep black background. The botanical images reflect not just leaf structure, however, but the plants’ interactions with the world in which they grew: weathered cracks and the pathways of insects that ate their way across the surface.

According to the exhibit’s explanatory material, the images’ black-and-white contrast speaks to Means’ feelings about nature while living in New York’s manmade canyons.

“My photographs of leaves are a metaphor of this sense of loss,” Means writes. “The luminosity resulting from this unusual approach transforms the imagery into a burst of radiant light, surrounded by intense darkness. The imagery is changed from the purely botanical to become a metaphor of the life-giving quality of light itself to the organisms of this Earth.”

Means, who received a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1969 and a master of fine arts degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1978, has had her work widely published and collected. Her photoghraphs are held in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

Harvard Museum of Natural History Executive Director Elisabeth Werby said Means brings the perceptions of both an artist and a scientist to her work.

“Means has the eye of both an artist and a scientist,” Werby said. “These extraordinary photographs offer new ways to see and think about plants, raising intriguing questions about leaf form and function.”

Visitors to the museum will find the exhibit, which opened May 9, in a gallery near both the famed Glass Flowers and the special exhibit of “Sea Creatures in Glass,” which were created by the same artists who created the Glass Flowers. “Looking at Leaves” features 18 images of the leaves of familiar trees such as maple, alder, and oak, as well as of other plants such as tapeworm plant, rattlesnake root, and various ferns.

The large image of the maple leaf, showing cracks and wear, is a special one to Means. The maple leaf was the first whose image she created using her technique. It was the mid-1980s and Means was in the woods photographing leaves and felt frustrated at being limited to the leaf surface.

“I had been photographing them from the outside with a camera and feeling like I was missing something important inside,” Means said. “It was like I wanted to crawl inside them.”

Means looked up and saw a large maple leaf over her head with the sun behind, light shining through the leaf itself.

“The shape was beautiful and powerful,” Means said. “I grabbed that leaf and ran home.”

Since that time, she’s printed hundreds of images from leaves and shown the resulting prints in various galleries. Means said she expects to continue making images from leaves and said she likes to work with unfamiliar leaves from other parts of the world.