Kirsten Strayer March 24 2019

Can we capture the sublime? On fireflies, shrinking habitats, and the possibilities of film and video


Deep in the Smoky Mountains, the Photinus carolinus (simultaneously-flashing fireflies) display their synchronous mating habits for a few weeks each year. The sight is almost indescribable. Away from public viewing areas, without lights or any trace of civilization, they exhibit practices that appear surreal to the human eye. They eschew human walking paths, for example, because the mulch and decaying matter is too thin.  Because of their habits, the fireflies leave pitch black, unlit trails surrounded by lakes of synchronous, pulsing lights. If you happen to leave these pathways and walk into the forest, they will ripple away from you like a very small, very calm ocean wave. It’s as if you are gliding through a bog of lights set to permanent Morse code.

It’s even more challenging to capture their visual magic on film, as they are notoriously hard to photograph. They are small and can only be captured in very dark spaces, therefore necessitating higher speed film and longer exposure times. While there are beautiful photos and videos of fireflies, their majesty is not as easily captured as, for example, the vast striations of the Grand Canyon. This poses the question: Is there a relationship between a subject’s ability to be represented and circulated on digital media, and the push for its conservation or the conservation of its environments?

Fireflies are a source of wonder for many cultures, but their populations are shrinking. In 2017, the P. carolinus was estimated at only 50% usual population density in the Smoky Mountains. Due to light pollution, climate change, and increased encroachment into their specific habitats, the P. carolinus and other species are becoming fewer each year. Even their popularity may be affecting the more rare species, with firefly tourists adding to the light pollution and disturbing the habitats of these rather delicate creatures.

How do we conserve habitats without overrunning firefly territories? And, are there other ways that humans can connect with these natural elements that speak to their wonder and beauty, even if their sublime sensibilities cannot be adequately filmed? 

The documentary Brilliant Darkness: Hotaru in the Light (Emily Driscoll, 2015) speaks to the longstanding relationship between Japan and the lighted insects and explores the spiritual human loss that accompanies animal extinction. The film interviews photographers and scientists, all of whom are trying to figure out how to preserve this unique insect for later generations. The participants discuss both its long tradition in art and philosophy as well as its role as a prognosticator of environmental devastation. In Brilliant Darkness, the relationship between people and the creatures is emphasized, focusing not just on their spectacular beauty but on the important interdependence that humans and insects have with each other. In preserving the darkness that allows fireflies to flourish, humans are also maintaining their own space for darkness.

Brilliant Darkness: Hotaru in the Light (Emily Driscoll, 2015)

In Enchanting Fireflies Paint the Sky, nature photographer Vincent Brady uses time-lapse video to change firefly light into painted brushstrokes. In this series of still images, Brady paints the landscapes of Michigan and Missouri with swaths of light, creating painterly photographs that appear unreal or preternatural in scope. Here, Brady uses photography not to capture the “realistic” firefly in its milieu but instead to produce impressionistic images that gesture toward the fireflies’ otherworldly appearances.

Enchanting Fireflies Paint the Sky

Other scientists and artists are attempting to work with the fireflies themselves. In Synchronicity (Thailand), Robin Meier and André Gwerder use LED lights to “speak” to Pteroptyx malaccae (an Asian synchronous firefly), changing the rhythm and sequence of the insect’s flashes. Electronically produced lights, in this case, stimulate a response instead of mute it. This video speaks to contemporary, radical changes in human-natural interactions. While human have of course been changing natural evolution for centuries, the attempt to work within a species behavioral frameworks is still new. As opposed to dominating nature, this video poses a more interactive relationship with it.

The interactive platform Firefly also lets us interact with the insects, albeit in a virtual form. Created by Nicky Case, the firefly program lets humans click to be one of the fireflies, allowing the user to deploy the light patterns made when fireflies interact with each other. A user can adjust the settings to see how fireflies can be more or less interactive with an initial flash. The website gestures toward theories of self-synchronizing natural and artificial kinds of life, from cells to insects to metronomes to computers processes. 


In each of these works, visual representation gestures toward the sublime beauty of the natural world but also highlights the interactive relationship between humans and natural elements. We can see these beauties as objects of contemplation but also as subjects primed for interaction. In so doing, we can see the importance of their being in the world, both for themselves and for us as interactive partners.

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.

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