Cycloptera arcuata/”Greenpea” , Photography 7 x 11

Robert Oelman and the Art of Seeing

With the progress of digital technology many photographers have become preoccupied with aping aspects of painting. No doubt, digital imaging has provided us with exciting innovations and new directions in so-called “painterly photography.” At the same time, however, we have also seen a disheartening decrease in artful documentary photography. “What I am about is a dedication to seeing all there is to be seen,” says photographer Robert Oelman, who captures what is often invisible: the tiniest and most exotic insects, some of which can mimic leaves and camouflage themselves amid tropical foliage. Amazingly, many of these species have never been photographed before and are often unknown to all but “the most specialized entomologists,” the text announcing Oelman’s exhibition tells us. Oelman and his assistant, Cristian Fernando Lopez, travel to the remote rainforests of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, to photograph the structurally diverse insects known as treehoppers; katydids and mantids. To take insect photography out of the field of scientific specialization and elevate it to the level of a high art, Oelman has developed new techniques and mastered the use of light and shadow in order to create compositions with real dramatic impact. For the uninitiated, seeing these tiny bugs in his crystal clear close-ups is tantamount to encountering fantastic creatures from another planet –– which they might as well be, considering that the rainforest is a world apart. Take, for example, the print entitled 'Trophyllum sp/“Monte Cristo,”' which, like all of Oelman’s pictures, is a color photographic print on fine art paper. With its long, spider-like limbs and delicate, almost human-looking profile and long, tail-like profusion jutting up from its rear end, as it makes its way across a magnified leaf, the insect appears almost regal in its bearing. Indeed, it is as otherworldly as something sprung fresh from the fertile imagination of the nineteenth century French Symbolist draftsman and painter Odilon Redon –– who actually did invent amoeboid beings and insects with human heads! By contrast, the print that Oelman calls 'Tropidolomia auriculata/“Rainbow,”' shows us a literally “bug-eyed” creature as squatly constructed as as frog, perching on its four spindly pink legs on a curved greenish yellow surface that appears to be the rind of a tropical fruit. As roundly ungainly as this tiny creatures is, however, it has a feature of beauty and glory: two rainbow-striped wings of more radiant hues than those of most butterflies. Unusual wings (or are they oversized ears?) are also a feature of another creature, in the print entitled 'Membracis dorsata/“Ziggy,”' which has alighted on a large green leaf that it is attacking with what appears to be a large black, avian-like beak. This insect’s wings –– or ears, as the case may be –– are a shiny shade of grey that matches the rest of its body, but they are decorated with bold white stripes at both their broad base and their tapered, tongue-shaped tips. There are many other delightfully weird mites to be seen in this menagerie of exotic wonders, including 'Stenophylia comigara/“Draco,’’' an elongated critter that mimics the color and texture of the rough bark surface on which it is seen. There is also a contact sheet show of several bugs cavorting on leaves, its delicate colors reminiscent of an antique Sunday newspaper page of George Herrimen’s immortal comic strip “Krazy Kat.”

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