Books

Ecologist captures life on the prairie, one photo at a time in new book, 'Hidden Prairie'

Hidden Prairie: Photographing Life in One Square Meter (University of Iowa Press)
Hidden Prairie: Photographing Life in One Square Meter (University of Iowa Press)
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I’m not much of an outdoors lover. As a general rule, I’m perfectly happy indoors with my books. But a new book published by University of Iowa Press offered me a wonderful way to experience a small yet amazingly diverse bit of the outdoors — and I came away convinced that I should recalibrate my thinking about spending time in the natural world.

For his part, Chris Helzer has a deep love of the natural world and a commitment to sharing that love with others in support of conservation. His “Hidden Prairie: Photographing Life in One Square Meter” is a simply captivating, sustained look at all the life teeming in a tiny portion of the landscape — a kind of landscape once far more common in the Midwest, including in Iowa.

Helzer, who is director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, answered questions via email.

Q: Give us a little background on the origin of this project. How did the idea first arise? Was there any hesitation before diving in?

A: The idea hit me while I was trying to think of new ways to talk about the beauty and complexity of prairies, a frequent subject of my writing and photography efforts. The initial idea was really just a way to challenge myself and give readers of my blog a new way to appreciate how much happens in a prairie, even at a very small scale. I figured it would be something fun to try for a while. I knew I’d be able to find and photograph more than most people would expect. What I didn’t anticipate was how much the project would inspire me, and how it would change the way I appreciated and experienced the ecosystem I’d been studying and exploring for close to 25 years.

I didn’t have any hesitation diving in because I didn’t really take the project seriously at first. I didn’t feel any pressure because I saw it as something I could just abandon if it stopped being fun. Once I got a few weeks into the spring green-up, though, I knew I’d stumbled onto something special. I was already feeling inspired by what I was finding — and by the innovation I was being forced into from a photography standpoint. Having to create images only out of what I found in a tiny area was an artistic challenge that kept me coming back over and over. By the time the season progressed into early summer and flower and invertebrate activity ramped up even more, I was absolutely hooked. I started sharing small subsets of photos on my blog and the response was strong and positive. That’s when I realized that maybe this project was going to have to be bigger than just a few blog posts.

Q: What makes the prairie such a fertile subject for you?

A: I first got interested in prairies because of their underdog status. Most people don’t give them a thought, even though they are the dominant ecosystem across most of the Midwestern and Great Plains states. If they do think about them, it’s usually in a dismissive way — ‘just a lot of flat boring grassland.’ Prairies are what you have to drive through to get to fun places. As I started learning about them in college, mostly through explorations my friends and I went on by ourselves, I began to understand and appreciate the incredible diversity of life that inhabited prairies.

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In those early days, I was inspired by prairies in two main ways. First, I loved the ways prairies responded to disturbances such as fires, grazing and drought. I wanted to be a land manager and learn how to create disturbances that would help prairies stay diverse and healthy. To this day, I get incredible satisfaction out of walking through a prairie and marveling at how species and their communities are able to adapt and thrive in response to stresses.

Second, I loved the dynamism of prairies. I started visiting the same prairies over and over and realizing there was always something new to find, even if it had only been a few days since my last visit. Some of those new discoveries came because I’d explore different places or in different ways. Others, though, simply came because the prairie makes daily changes to its appearance as plants and animals progress through their seasonal patterns. Through photography, I started to become more familiar with individual species. I’d photograph a plant or insect and then try to learn everything I could about it, including both its identity and its backstory. I never failed to find fascinating stories about a species I’d photographed. It’s not hard to love an ecosystem that provides that kind of storytelling.

Q: Tell me about a typical shoot at the site. How long were you generally there? How many photos would you take during a session? How frequently — if at all — did you come away from a day’s work having captured no photos that were appealing to you?

A: My average visit was about 30 minutes, but I was frequently at the plot for over an hour, especially later in the project. My visits got longer partly because there was more activity as the season progressed, but also because I get a lot better at observing and finding interesting subject matter. I learned how to sit quietly and scan carefully through the prairie vegetation in a way I’d never done before. I’d prided myself on being able to spot small creatures in the prairie as I wandered around with a camera, but not until I forced myself to sit and stare into one small area did I really learn how to be observant.

I don’t think I ever left the plot without some photos I was proud of. Part of the joy of the project was that it forced me to see differently, both from scientific and artistic viewpoints. During the growing season, I could always find invertebrates to photograph, but even after those disappeared in the late fall, I was able to challenge myself to make interesting images out of the texture and patterns of the curing plants.

Q: The short essays that appear throughout the book are delightful, in part because they are so conversational and honest about your successes and disappointments. What was the writing process like? Were you keeping notes when you visited the site or did you write from your memory? Were the essays written as the project rolled on or all together as the book moved toward publication?

A: Actually, the entire book was written over a manic four day period. The kids had gone to visit other relatives and my wife and I were alone for a long weekend. She was busy with her own projects and I just dove into writing the book. By the time I resurfaced, I’d pretty much finished it. One essay just flowed into the next and it was some of the easiest writing I’ve ever done.

Part of what helped the book come together quickly is that I’d been writing monthly blog updates on the project and had given a couple presentations as well. As a result, I’d spent a lot of time processing the experience. Between that and the fact that I could scan through my photographs and bring myself back to the moments they were created, the book was already bouncing around in my head — I just had to type it out.

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Q: Can you share a little about your photography equipment and perhaps your approach to photography as an art form?

A: I use pretty basic photo gear. I have a Nikon D7200 camera, which is not a high end camera at all. My main lens is a Nikon 105mm macro lens, which allows me to keep a little distance from wary insects, but still magnify them enough to see what they really look like up close. I also have a couple different wide-angle lenses I use for scenics, but also for close up photos that show a lot of landscape context around and behind the foreground subject. I use a tripod for most photos. I’ve never gotten into flash photography, preferring to rely on natural light. I wait for times when the sun is low in the sky or partially obscured behind diffuse clouds. By going out when the light is conducive to good photos, I can just take what the light gives me and make pleasing images.

Photography is a way for me to share the diversity and beauty of prairies with people who might not otherwise give them a second thought. I do a lot of face-to-face photos of creatures as a way to build empathy for them among viewers. I supplement those photos with snippets of the natural history stories of each creature. The combination of photos and stories makes those prairie inhabitants real for people, and once they have entered someone’s consciousness, it’s hard for that person to see prairies as empty anymore. Now, prairies are where those creatures and stories are. That’s an early important step to conservation success.

Q: Do you have a favorite image in the book?

A: My favorite photo from the book is a backlit sunflower leaf with an ant on it. From an artistic standpoint, the image is nice enough, but I appreciate it mostly because it is emblematic of the altered mindset I had to create for the square meter project. I’m used to wandering broadly through prairies and searching for something to photograph. Because this project forced me to sit still and explore only a very tiny area, I had to develop a new approach that relied on patience and detailed observation.

The ant photo happened just as I was realizing that I was going to need that new approach. I had set up to photograph the sunflower leaf because I liked the way the light was coming through it from the other side, making it glow. As I was studying the leaf, I realized there were ants making their way up and down the plant. I decided if I framed the leaf in the camera and sat long enough, an ant would eventually come through the frame and I could photograph it and the leaf together. It took nearly 10 minutes for all that to come together, but when it did, the accomplishment and satisfaction I felt helped me fully dedicate myself to this crazy project. Capturing that ant photo helped me realize that the project was much more than just a way to help others see the prairie differently — it was also going to do the same for me.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: I’m always looking for new stories to share, which isn’t a difficult challenge in prairies. So far, though, I haven’t found a suitable sequel to the square meter project. It was such a special happy accident of an idea that turned into a rewarding and effective vehicle for getting people to appreciate prairies, I’m not sure I’ll ever match it. In the meantime, I continue to tell prairie stories in a more piecemeal fashion, through blog posts, magazine articles, and presentations of various kinds. We’re also looking for more ways to share the square meter project with the public. Before the pandemic hit, we were on the path of creating a documentary film. That’s been put on hold for now, but instead, I’m working with the Nebraska State Museum on an exhibit that will feature the project and open in the fall of 2021.

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