Time to Call the Exterminator

 

Often I’ll be working and the slightest sensation of movement along the sidewall of my finger snatches my attention, the weight not enough to confirm something’s there but just enough to know something’s not right, like a ghost’s graze.  A second later, an ant travels across my finger as if it were a collapsible bridge. I reel in my knuckle and flick the insect away, elsewhere. A small crack in the wall, an orange peel left out, a piece of candy abandoned. A combination of life enabling events has occurred without my knowing , giving rise to a thriving ant colony beneath my desk. I’ll be watching a video and spot a tiny black speck traveling across some mountainous vista on the screen, the effect is disorienting and humorous. Luckily these ants do not bite, which has removed the urgency for extermination that would normally accompany such a problem.

***

The scene seemed normal. I surveyed the crowd, took inventory of faces never before seen, measured the actual dimensions of the people against the fuzzy mental construction of the person I’d briefly communicated with through an anonymous email exchange, facilitated by Craigslist. Arrangements were made in terse lines: He would be holding the box and I would be carrying an envelope with the cash. Partaking in the ritual of a Craigslist transaction is like entering a detective story, unsure whether you’re the detective or the suspect on the run. All I knew is that I was looking for a man named James and he for me.

        ***

INCONCEIVABLY INTERESTING,UNDOUBTEDLY ORIGINAL and HUMOROUS. A VALUABLE NATURAL HISTORY DEMONSTRATION.

-1912 newspaper description of an F. Percy Smith film

 

F. Percy Smith began making films in a bathroom-turned-studio inside his parents home in London at the start of the 20th century. Smith constructed massive camera contraptions to capture the tiniest encounters : flies lifting barbells, spiders weaving webs then “flying” out of frame, the trek a hop root takes until it becomes beer. “Birth of a Flower” , a first film, compressed months of blooming into three minutes of accelerated growth, a cinematic revelation. “The Balancing Bluebottle”, which depicts a fly lying on its back rotating another fly, had its premiere at the Palace Theater to the filmmaker’s great dismay. The film was received with great enthusiasm but hardly anyone believed in the authenticity of what was shown. To counter this response, Smith took his film to screen at the Royal Photographic Society alongside a lecture. The new venue and social context provided a scientific seriousness but only deepened the skepticism and curiosity regarding the film’s production. Smith wanted to walk the line between the entertainment world, who were dazzled, and the scientific world, who found fault with the concept of anthropomorphizing an insect. Despite criticisms, his films took Britain by storm and soon Smith landed a post at British Instructional Film where he would go on to make over fifty nature films. He was quoted as saying his aims were “to administer the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment”. His services would be enlisted by the British Navy at the start of the first world war.

***

I placed half an apple on a plane of glass as a call for ants. An hour later, my crew was ready. While looking through the viewfinder, in this new scale, the ants became more than ants. They took on new dimensions of personality, some were quick to scurry away and some seemed like they were naturally gifted at posing, appearing pregnant with thought and overflowing with expression. I wondered what I looked like to the ant : an enormous creature with a machine in his hands, wielding a a sphere of glass in which a distorted reflection of the world can be seen, like a crystal ball. When photographing a subject so close to the lens it’s as if the eye has traveled backward towards primordial times, where a centimeter is vast and nothing makes sense. The perspective is unreal and the plane of focus so shallow that the moment of capture must be in accordance with the rhythm of breath, the shutter should click at the moment when all the air has left the chest.

***

The way our eyes reached out to each other, with hopes of recognition, made me think I’d identified James but I wasn’t sure so I got in line for coffee. While in line I kept my eyes steady on the man who could be James , he was wearing an orange polo and was easily into his late seventies. He had a leather case with him out of which he pulled the box I recognized from the pixelated thumbnail. I sat down, with a banana and a coffee, retrieved the envelope from my pocket, and he counted the bills. After confirming they were all there, he told me he was selling all of his camera equipment and proceeded to show me another lens, an old manual Leica he bought when he was in his thirties that I admired but couldn’t afford. He understood but said he just wanted to show me the lens, just so I could see it. He threw in two attachment tubes that allow a lens to focus extremely close to the subject, for free. I didn’t want to ask him why he was relinquishing all of his equipment. I was afraid I already knew the reason and didn’t want to hear him cover it up with words, for some stranger.

***

Films from the war arrived by train, the anticipation of the screenings was palpable mostly among children. Smith’s films brought minds into worlds previously unseen, rather, they brought attention and fascination to what was already there. During wartime, Smith’s films depicted maps that outlined where battles took place and chronicled the path of war. The difference between macro and aerial filmmaking is surprisingly not great, If there’s one thing the cinema excels at , it’s eliminating distance. The war films gave assurance to a perspective of the world. A world in limbo, stabilized by images. The nature films captured the phenomenal in the mundane. Smith’s work partook in the creation of new myths and the expansion of dreams, and by definition the expansion of nightmares.