ECO Art + Science: Photography of Plant Ecologist Kurt Reinhart

This week’s featured artist-scientist in the ECO Art + Science series is Kurt Reinhart: plant ecologist for the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Miles City, Montana, photographer and videographer. Kurt is also the creator of the website www.iecology.net, an educational resource for plant ecology on the web. For those of you who are regular readers, you know how much I love time-lapse projects, so I was particularly excited to interview someone who loves time-lapse even more than I do (and who does a great job, too)!

Forests from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Thanks for participating in the ECO Art + Science series, Kurt! Why don’t you start by telling the biocreativity readers what type of work do you do.

[KR] I’m an incredibly lucky guy that gets paid to do what I enjoy—being a Plant Ecologist.  At work, I spend most of my time either conceiving, implementing, analyzing, or publishing research projects.  The work is filled with challenges, and I also enjoy the multiple ways that I get to be creative while doing my job.  I have other passions in my life including: my family, hiking, camping, hunting, and nature photography.  In many cases, these passions are intertwined.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Is your primary training in art or science, or both?

[KR] I may be interpreting the term “biocreativity” differently but I aspire to being biocreative.  I see it directly related to making scientific breakthroughs, developing multidisciplinary projects, and elevating the importance of my science.  Creativity is an essential ingredient in scientific achievement.

Though I hated it in high school, my primary training is actually in biology. I’ve also been interested in nature photography for years.  For about five years, I’ve been attempting to merge my professional and recreational interests with the creation of some short educational movies and other types of content on my website www.iecology.net.

This panorama shows a series of plant communities in different stages of secondary succession occurring at Shades State Park, Indiana. Secondary succession involves recovering following a disturbance. In this case agricultural conversion and then abandonment restarts the successional clock. This specific type of succession is often referred to as "old field succession" following abandonment. The field to the left is the youngest. The slightly older field to the right has an abundance of goldenrod (Solidago sp.). This is a common species in old fields of the eastern United States. To the rear of this field (right side) is an early successional forest. The forest to the left is the oldest plant community in view. As succession progresses there are numerous changes in the plant community composition and structure. Photo & caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy the iecology site. It’s a great way to visualize ecology – especially plant biology! It’s also great that you’ve been able to use your creative abilities to help educate others about ecology. How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[KR] Whether art should be merged more formally with science is functionally a decision for faculty at Universities to decide.  This decision really depends on their composition, history and vision, which will dictate whether such a change is pursued or not.  What is obvious to me is that many scientists are also musicians, painters, photographers, etc.  Scientists are a diverse bunch—some are likely indifferent to art but others are deeply connected and inspired by it.  To me, science has many connections with art.

Art is a tangible product that expresses an artist’s ideas and vision.  It serves as a form of communication that when done well provokes interpretation and reflection.  Scientists are concerned with interpreting and generating ideas, building an awareness for what is known and unknown, collecting and interpreting data, and skillfully communicating the importance of their ideas and interpretations.  A lot of aspects of science and art are shared though the training, tools, and media often differ.  I recently had a lot of fun collaborating on a time-lapse project with painter Mika Holtzinger.

Looking Back from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What got you interested in plant biology? Also, what are some of the challenges of working with organisms and communities that are often very slow (at least, they are slow from the perspective of most humans) to change? 

[KR] I became really interested in plants after realizing their importance in defining habitat for wildlife and ecosystem structure and function.  Their importance is greater than most realize.  Most people think plants are as boring as rocks…  Their interest in nature is often limited to topics that can be easily visualized like courtship, predation, migration, and other animal behaviors.  I love nature documentaries, but they typically illustrate a small fraction of nature.  Getting audiences excited about the rest of nature is a challenge.

At work, we provide annual school tours.  99.9% of forth graders will never forget the day they got to reach into a cannulated cow’s “stomach” (actually rumen).  A major challenge is making plants equally exciting.  Over the years, I’ve tried to take professional photographs of plants and plant communities (landscapes) to help make them appealing subjects to a broad audience.  I’ve been dabbling in videography and have been shooting time-lapse sequences of plants for nearly 10 years.  Time-lapse videos are my favorite medium for making plants charismatic!

Time-lapse video of American chestnut seedlings growing from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What inspired you to get started in photography and what inspires your current work?

[KR] For years, I’ve been a huge fan of the outdoors and nature, macro, wildlife, and landscape photography.  I read books and magazines on nature and landscape photography.  For several years, I’ve been a big fan of the www.timescapes.org  forum!  Probably my biggest source of inspiration for my website is Roger Handgarter’s website (http://plantsinmotion.bio.indiana.edu/).  I was fortunate to interact with Roger and documentary film maker Sam Orr while post-docing at Indiana University.  I’m also a huge fan of the incredible time-lapse content produced by BBC, especially Tim Shepherd‘s time-lapses.

[biocreativity] I am a huge fan of the BBC time-lapse crew, which I featured in a post about nature time-lapse back in July. Time-lapse just seems to be a really engaging and effective way to get others involved in biology. What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[KR]  I see patterns and processes in nature with biological meaning that many people don’t.  This view of nature has been honed by years of training and experience.  Publishing research is an essential part of my career but this content often impacts only a small fraction of the world and mostly other scientists.  Photography and videography is one way that I attempt to communicate ecological concepts to a broader world.

The above panorama near the peak of Mount Sentinel near Missoula, Montana experienced a wildfire killing the trees in the foreground. The north aspects of the mountains retain slightly more moisture (i.e. snow melts slower) permiting trees to persist (see upper left of picture with a north-west aspect). Photo and caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] Your ability to communicate ecology to others is really well illustrated by your Mount Sentinel panorama (above). I assume this often sparks interesting conversations with others about your work and about ecology. What are the most common questions or comments you get about your work?

[KR] A lot of people enjoy watching time-lapse content.  Shooting time-lapse sequences is considerably more challenging than photographing the same subject.  Most questions that I receive pertain to technical details of shooting a sequence.  I only have a few trade secrets and enjoy sharing most of what I’ve learned.  On my website, I provide various details on individual sequences.  I like hearing from people, and their positive feedback helps keep me motivated!

I do lots of different types of research.  So the questions are as varied as the topics and people asking the questions.

Damping-off – a story of plant disease from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy how you are able to present scientific information along with captivating images. Your short film on damping off disease in plants is a particularly good example of this. I also really enjoy your series of interactive panoramic photos on the iecology site that present information on plant community ecology. The diversity of habitats you’ve covered is impressive! Kurt, what’s next for you?

[KR] I’m enjoying being a full time ecologist in a region with some of the largest, most intact, and least studied grasslands in the world.  I wouldn’t want to be doing research anywhere else.

I’m gradually accumulating all sorts of time-lapse content that I hope to eventually develop into a 10-30 minute movie that I would like to enter in a regional film contest! That is a distant goal.  I’ve also got a new time-lapse set, like a mini studio, nearly complete that should enable me to make some incredible time-lapses of plants.  I love my www.iecology.net website but a lot of content on the internet is tough to sustain due to the persistent costs of maintaining a website.  Either way, I’ll still be working away at shooting and making content.

Time-lapse blue grama grass anthesis from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Well, I can’t wait to see what comes next! Speaking of science and film – you and the biocreativity readers may be interested in Scientific American’s PsiVid blog. They discuss all kinds of opportunities and methods for making science films. I notice that your Favorites page on the iecology site features a lot of ecology, photography and filmmaking links that could be very useful to the biocreativity readers. Just to summarize, can you tell the biocreativity readers all the places on the web where they can learn more about your work?

[KR] To see my time-lapse content, check out my website (www.iecology.net) or  my Vimeo page. The Vimeo account may be the best place to keep track of my content in the future because I’m contemplating closing my website due to annual hosting fees. If you’re interested in learning more about my science then you can jump over to http://usda.academia.edu/KurtReinhart. I also have an iecology Twitter account, but post infrequently.

[biocreativity] Kurt, thank you so much for sharing your work with us on the biocreativity blog. I noticed you have a ‘donate’ button at the bottom of the the iecology website. I think it’s really important for there to be diverse ways for the public to learn more about the science of ecology. I hope that folks who like your website might be inspired to give what they can to support it. Now, I’m off to go and watch some more of your videos!

Panoramic photo of a bog in Adirondack State Park in NY. See the interactive panorama and learn more about bog succession at http://www.iecology.net/pano_bog.html

Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to biocreativity@yahoo.com.

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