A Bug’s Life: David and Marian Fairchild’s Book of Monsters (1914)

David Fairchild and his wife, Marian — the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell — published Book of Monsters after a laborious summer creating some of the earliest macrophotographs of tiny creatures in their backyard just north of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Filled with full-page images of recently deceased insects, spiders, myriapods, and pill bugs, the book brought a miniature world to life in a new way, turning bugs into fantastical beasts. By placing the reader face-to-face with the barely visible, Book of Monsters made the familiar into the exotic through the magic of scalar enlargement.

Fairchild was not himself an entomologist, rather a botanist and plant explorer. He helped to propogate American Pima cotton in the southwestern United States, and to import many thousands of exotic plants and important crop species. The mangoes, avocados, and nectarines now grown there, for example, are part of his legacy. But Fairchild also had an eye for other types of biodiversity, including minute animals. Speaking of insects, he lamented that “these beautiful forms of life should be so evanescent”, hardly like their “dried-up corpses” found in collections. Perhaps there was a way to preserve their beauty photographically. Macrophotography was very new in the early twentieth century, but Fairchild took up the task.

Inspired by the macrophotographs of the American nematologist Dr N. A. Cobb, the Fairchilds devised a novel photographic setup. They created cameras with inordinately long extension tubes to magnify the images and create a dramatic, narrow depth of field. Larger specimens could be photographed with tubes five or eight feet long, smaller ones needed up to twenty feet! These tubes were created from cardboard and were supported on a long table, with a lens at one end and a photographic plate at the other. The specimen was placed in front of the lens by one person, and shifted carefully until someone at the other end could see it was in focus. Then, the lens was covered up and an orthochromatic double-coated photographic plate was slotted in, ready for exposure, which would last fifty to eighty seconds. A magnesium flash prevented unwanted shadows and the specimen was shaded from bright sun by a sheet of glass covered in tissue.

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Though he described the setup in great detail so that others could copy it easily, Fairchild admitted that “the whole thing is a game of quickness, ingenuity and patient skill”. He emphasised that the “wilting insect cannot wait, the sunlight shifts, clouds drift across the sun and just as everything is in readiness, a breeze springs up which stirs the creature’s wings” meaning that “the whole thing has to be given up”. It was as if he was an explorer battling through tough terrain in order to obtain the secrets of this hidden world. Most of all, it was “the mounting of the beasts which wears upon one’s nerves”, though much of this was done by Marian. She would cover a block of wood with a layer of candle wax and fix a leaf flat on top. She then fastened each foot of a freshly killed specimen to the block by pricking a hole in the leaf, which allowed wax to rise up and serve as hidden glue. Even with this careful preparation, the way wings, legs, or “long flexible antennae will droop are exasperations which lead straight to profanity”.

The results of these efforts were extraordinary, however. The images revealed jumping spiders, weevils, dragonfly nymphs, and myriad other arthropods in exquisite detail, from an unprecedentedly personal perspective. Accompanying the images, Fairchild’s writing indulged in natural historical exposition, myth weaving, and philosophical musings. He wrote his subjects into extraordinary creatures. A pill bug was not just a terrestrial crustacean, but a beast “from the time of the prehistoric monsters”. A spider “from the fly’s point of view is a terrible monster” with “claws of polished chitin, sharp as sword points, each with an aperture leading to a sac filled with deadly poison”. The “matrimonial habits” of myriapods were “strange beyond belief”, Fairchild commented, in a way reminiscent of anthropologists observing indigenous tribes in far off lands. He also reflected on what humans could learn from these tiny animals. For example, how male spiders eaten by females were just tools “in the machinery of descent”, or how a spider killing a fly was a “true picture of merciless cruelty”.

By presenting arthropods from their own supposed perspectives — with some anthropomorphic embellishment — Fairchild brought his reader into the high drama that was happening right under their feet. His primary aim was to counteract the “ignorance of those who train our little ones that keeps alive the unreasoning hatred towards so many of the wonder creatures of the woods”. With Marian’s patient dexterity, David’s imagination, and some photographic innovation, the Fairchilds managed to turn these creatures into wonders that could fascinate, rather than bugs to be avoided or eradicated.