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the beauty of bugs

You won't find Robin Kittrell Laughlin listed among the great entomologists of the world. And that's too bad, because the great entomologists of the world might enjoy her gentle view of the littlest creatures among us.

Laughlin, a New Mexico photographer, has come up with a charming book called Backyard Bugs (Chronicle Books, $12.95). It's a little bit of everything _ science, nature, garden, whimsy. There are 40 close-up portraits of ordinary things gardeners find in their yards such as pill bugs and ants, as well as exotic-looking dragonflies, tiny orange mites and green-fanged spiders.

With patience _ and a good close-up lens _ Laughlin captured kaleidoscopic colors, fascinating details and amazing facial expressions of these underappreciated creatures. Her work is both fun and informative.

"I've never met a bug I didn't like," said Laughlin, in a telephone interview. "I met some that weren't so photogenic, though. Some were given to me by well-meaning friends. I thanked them very nicely, and, after they were gone, I released the bug."

In fact, all the bugs got a new lease on life after their time before the camera. "I released all of them after photographing them. I did give the Fiery Scorcher to a bug collector since the bug was from Texas and should not have been released in New Mexico anyway. And I did not release the Regal Moth Caterpillar, as it was lent to me by a man who raises them, and they are not native to New Mexico either," she said.

While the photographs are fascinating, the real treat is Laughlin's text. Her simple stories about how she found, photographed and released her subjects are precious. You will learn a little bug history and spider science, but you will learn much more about the unsuspecting side of these creatures. Some highlights:

Swift Long-winged Skimmer Dragonfly. "It was circling a roadside pond in southern New Mexico. This species is found throughout North America and eats small insects. Its body was 1{ inches long. He was friendly and cooperative, always quick with a smile. It took me five minutes to do his portrait. He was not fussy or vain about his hair."

Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar. "He is a member of the Sphinx Moth family. I wanted to keep him and watch his development until he turned into the next thing, but he was a messy houseguest. I turned him loose on my very own plants, in gratitude for his portrait."

Green June Beetles. "They were sent to me from Texas in a box with a single Rice Krispie. I gave them all a quick shower in the kitchen sink, put some peanut oil on their parched wing cover, and fed them fresh peach pieces. They drink pollen and eat fruit, and are partial to peaches."

Regal Moth Caterpillar. "Who cares what the moth looks like. What a caterpillar. I borrowed him from a man who raises them. We met at night in a parking lot _ he showed me this giant, obscenely beautiful caterpillar in the car headlights, holding it casually in his hand. It was five inches long. When I took its portrait, it reminded me of a dragon in a Chinese New Year's parade."

How do you get these things to sit still long enough for a portrait photograph?

Laughlin says she put her captured subjects into the refrigerator (not the freezer) and the chilly experience slowed them down long enough for her to snap her shots.

"The quick chill was the most efficient non-invasive means of getting the bugs to pose, since it was of paramount importance to me to shoot live portraits. How else could their personalities manifest themselves," she said. "Some bugs, like the Praying Mantis, posed all day long, and we had long conversations."

Not everything was willing to cooperate. For instance, the Pale Windscorpion was hard to catch because it ran so fast. She and a friend cornered it, and "the only way we could slow it down enough to take a picture was to blow a whiff of cigarette smoke into the bug jar."

"I tried to avoid wildly glamorous bugs. I liked the way rather ordinary bugs became extraordinary when I took the time to really look, up close," she said.

The book, Laughlin said, seemed like a natural project for someone who loves the New Mexico wild and takes her camera everywhere. "I was trained in photography, less so in writing. But I am an inveterate letter writer and I believe that my book has a familiar, personal tone. I have a designer's eyes, too, so I like to look at beautiful things whether they are Turkish rugs, Italian shoes or American bugs."

Lucky for us that she decided to photograph the bugs instead of the shoes.

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