Monday, April 30, 2007

Frans Lanting Photographs the Ages of Life on Earth

For those of you who have been following my blog, you may recall my piece on the Long Now Foundation. These guys have a monthly lecture series where scientists, economists, and other experts in their fields give us a long view of a subject. I am so glad I went to this month's lecture, presented by National Geographic nature photographer Frans Lanting.
Lanting presented photos from his new book, 'Life: A Journey through Time' and gave us a narrative of what ancient lifeforms and the planet looked like in different stages of time.

I'll let Stewart Brand tell you the rest, as he is far more eloquent than I, and has been doing this since before I was born.
"It began on a New Jersey beach. Frans Lanting was photographing horseshoe crabs for a story about how they are being ground up for eel bait and at the same time their blood is used for drug testing---a $100 million industry. The crabs have primordial eyesight, which they employ mainly for finding sex partners. Photographing the horseshoes having a spawning orgy one spooky twilight, Lanting felt like he was suddenly back in the Silurian, 430 million years ago...

So Lanting and his wife Chris Eckstrom set out in search of "time capsules," places on the present Earth where he could find and photograph all the ancient stages of life. A two-year project expanded to seven years.

On a live volcano in Hawaii he found the naked planet of 4.3 billion years ago--- molten rock flowing, zero life. "Your boots melt. You smell early Earth." On the western coast of Australia he shot a rare surviving living reef of stromatolites, made of the cyanobacteria who three billion years ago transformed the Earth by filling the atmosphere with oxygen. Lanting took pains to photograph without blue sky in the background, because the sky was not blue until the cyanobacteria had generated a planet's worth of oxygen.

Life's journey through time is a story of innovations, Lanting said. Lichens were the first to colonize land, followed by shelled creatures who could carry ocean inside them--- crabs, turtles, and snails. In Australia Lanting photographed mudskippers---amphibious fish who use their pectoral fins to crawl around on mud and even climb trees.

Dinosaurs once browsed on land plants that defended themselves with ferocious spiky leaves. A survivor of that battle is the Araucaria tree in Chile. Lanting planted one in his garden near Santa Cruz and photographed it there.

Study of the first feathered reptile, the archaeopteryx, suggested that the contemporary bird with the most similar flight style is the frigatebird, and Lanting photographed one looking like an airborne fossil in the Galapagos Islands.

Asteroids and climate change made new niches and new innovations. Following the Cretaceoous extinction 65 million years ago, mammals deployed their toothed jaws. Drier climate 25 million years ago created grasslands. When the forests dried, some apes took to walking upright in the savannahs of Africa. And some of those got around to analyzing DNA and noticing that life's entire history is written there.

Lanting ended his dazzling show with two demonstrations. One was an 8-minute segment of an hour-long orchestral version of "Life's Journey Through Time," composed by Philip Glass, with a brilliant multi-media version of Lanting's photos. The music and the image dynamics gain complexity stage by stage in synch with the growing complexity of life. (It would be glorious to see this performed locally with the San Francisco Symphony. The ideal occasion would be the opening of the new California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park next year.)

Lanting also did a quick demo of the timeline version of his photos (and videos) on his website. The level of its sophistication drew cheers and applause from the Web-savvy San Francisco audience. See for yourself:
--Stewart Brand"

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