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One Picture

Photo Essay
Life: A Journey Through Time
In his new book an acclaimed photographer captures the beauty and complexity of the earth's history, from its earliest stirrings billions of years ago to the majestic landscapes and wildlife that have evolved ever since.

One spring evening seven years ago, I stood at the tide line of an estuary in the eastern United States, watching something that took me far back in the past. I saw horseshoe crabs come out of the water to spawn, an ancient ritual that goes back hundreds of millions of years. That experience made me realize that I could see the past in the present. And I wondered whether it might be possible to tell the story of life on earth from its earliest beginnings to its present diversity by capturing images that evoke nature through time.

Ever since that encounter with horseshoe crabs, I’ve been on a personal journey through earth’s history, looking for situations in the natural world that provide a window into its past. This involved exposing cameras to all kinds of extremes, and working by twilight and moonlight. For example, to photograph an erupting volcano in Hawaii, I wore a respirator to guard against the caustic fumes that corrode camera parts and lungs alike. In other instances, such as when working underwater, I floated around coral reefs in a world of fluid motion, searching for early forms of marine life. 

Nature in most places appears as a chaotic mosaic of species that live together in the present but have their origins in different geological periods. My goal, with these photos, was to create a sequence of images that can be viewed as slices through time. My approach has been that of a storyteller who draws on characters for the sake of telling a larger tale.

We are living in extraordinary times: Our knowledge about life on earth is growing rapidly through advances in science that increase our understanding of the interconnected nature of life. That realization has inspired my work.

At the beginning of my career, I started out as a wildlife photographer pursuing animals on an individual basis.

As I learned more about their lives, my view grew to include their habitats, and animals became ambassadors for ecosystems. Then I came to understand that the multitudes of species reflected the awesome biodiversity on earth.

Yet every one of these living organisms has a unique origin. And I emerged from this journey with a different sense of myself in time. These photos are my tribute to the kinship and continuity of all life on earth.

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