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The horseshoe crab, an incredible marine creature close to spiders that has existed nearly unchanged for 450 million years, is the unusual muse of Lynn Alleva Lilley and her project Deep Time, published by Eriskay Connection. These “living fossils” still populate the Atlantic ocean off North American coastlines and during the spawning season of early summer they converge to the sandy beaches of Delaware Bay to rest and mate. It is there that Lynn Alleva Lilley encountered this peculiar animal and began an unexpected journey of research and discovery. For years she photographed and studied the Limulus polyphemus, day and night, immersing herself in its habitat and life routines with attention and wonder. Her look intertwines the details and accuracy of scientific atlases with the more contemplative and sensorial experience of poetic imagery. Going through the book and learning more about this species, we start to understand her fascination: the horseshoe crab seems to be a model of resilience and harmless adaptation; it discreetly coexisted with its natural habitat and with other species for millions of years, following tidal and moon cycles with its biological clock. The evocative images of water, light, sand, mating rituals in Deep Time become a lyrical meditation on time, repetition, natural cycles, and our relation as human beings to our planet and all its inhabitants.


Lynn Alleva Lilly, Deep Time, courtesy the artist / Eriskay Connection

During the development of the project you collaborated with experts, scientists, research-based storytellers; you dug into archival material and explored archeological museums. Can you tell us more about this fecund dialogue between disciplines and its influence on your creative process?

Science and art have had a long history together. For me, the dialogue begins with curiosity, wonder and the asking of life questions. My father was a biologist, loved nature and did basic research in chronobiology. He often took us on hikes growing up naming and tasting edible plants. It was a delight to make the connection with the biological clocks of horseshoe crabs and my father’s work. My mother is a painter and sensitive to color, movement, harmony, and the physical act of putting paint on canvas. I was pleasantly surprised that these influences came together unconsciously and were transformed through Deep Time. This process continues with new work as well. I am becoming more fascinated with exploring form; our human need to create order and meaning out of ambiguity. How inexplicable feeling can provide fertile ground for color, line, space, and light to come together to create a whole. Or the opposite, how all those elements can come together and create a feeling in us. That inner/outer relationship.

It appeared as a gift, a lifeline, and a way to discover things that seemed impossible to know any other way. At that point, I began reading all the scientific information I could find about the horseshoe crab. That it has 10 eyes two of which are sensitive to UV light emitted by the moon and stars and possibly two biological clocks, one circadian and one lunar, was such a revelation to me and inspired me to follow the horseshoe crab. I began to feel my own life history connecting with the life of this creature.

What science, and its method, discovers is amazing yet it is a discipline that wants answers. I think art can use those discoveries as inspiration and transform them with the human imagination, through metaphor, into a feeling of expansion and change in both the creator and the viewer. Maybe it helps us to live with what cannot, as yet, be explained. In my creative process I don’t plan out my work from the beginning. The reaching out to these experts, scientists, and museums happened naturally and was a result of curiosity born from what I was seeing and learning. When I saw the eggs on shore illuminated by moonlight and light from flashlights during spawning I knew I wanted to see and photograph the tiny embryos. Fortunately, the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment has its campus in Lewes so I contacted scientists there to see if I could use the microscopes in their lab. They became interested in my work as an artist and offered me a residency. The scientists there were wonderfully helpful and interesting to talk with. They set me up in the lab, showed me how to use a couple of different microscopes including one that is UV sensitive. In the scientific community, there seems to be an interest in communicating with the public about research results and so with my work they were able to achieve that in a unique way.

Deep Time began when I was photographing the interaction of light and water during low tide and high tide in Delaware Bay. It was a meditative experience over the years and helped me feel both calm and alive at the same time. Then one day I saw the horseshoe crab swimming on its back. I felt this utter surprise and delight.


Lynn Alleva Lilly, Deep Time, courtesy the artist / Eriskay Connection

Many photographers are in a continuous research of the new ; new subjects, new horizons, new stories. If something has already been photographed it is not worth going back to it. On the contrary, you focused on the same subject for a long time, spent years tirelessly following and photographing the horseshoe crab. You found, however, a way to always show it differently: water, sand, photos taken from afar alternate with images that get closer and closer, with details always more precise, up to microscopic images of embryos. We find fascinating this eternal return to the same theme, to to rediscover it always from new perspectives, to fully immerse oneself into it, until it becomes familiar. We would like to know how your vision of the horseshoe crab changed during this process, how your project and photographic approach, your way of looking evolved over time around the same topic.

I’ve realized that I prefer to photograph where I live over long periods of time. Whether overseas in Jordan or Kyrgyzstan or back home in Maryland or Lewes, knowing I can just walk out the door and discover things is important. Deciding where to spend most of my time photographing depends on what holds my interest and curiosity longest and keeps me coming back. 

Being able to go back to the same place over and over again helps me go deeper, to see more, and sometimes to get thrown into other worlds that exist beyond the easily seen. This repetitive approach lays the groundwork for surprise to happen. Seeing what the horseshoe crab looked like and how it behaved in different locations, different times and different tides was fascinating and I could relate it to my own life of change. In Slaughter Beach (just North of Lewes Beach), the shore looked like a dark brown bog where thousands of horseshoe crabs get entangled and die except that they were alive waiting for the tide to come in, untangle them and take them back to sea! In another location, the water was a beautiful yellow/green and the horseshoe crabs seemed darker in that water. They also were playful, showing off how fast they could scurry along the floor just further away from the water’s edge. The males would often mistake a large, rusted water pipe for a female and swim up to it to spawn. And one day, red algae floated near the shore creating beautiful relationships among the elements in the image. I stayed for a long time in each place to see and photograph these small changes. One moment the sun is out, the next it is covered by clouds and that changes what you see, feel and understand.


Lynn Alleva Lilly, Deep Time, courtesy the artist / Eriskay Connection

Lynn Alleva Lilly, Deep Time, courtesy the artist / Eriskay Connection

Your book begins and ends with images of water ; « life itself », as says the lyrical title of your last chapter, quoting visionary ecology pioneer Rachel Carson. You capture the endless variety of color, shape, texture produced by its almost magical interaction with sun and moon light. Not satisfied with the surface, you look deeper, underwater. You mention that water and light have been an important subject of your artistic research for a long time, and they play a major role in this book (interestingly, horseshoe crabs are also very sensitive to day and night light). Why this fascination ?

I really struggle to articulate my fascination with light and water. Often I’m attracted to the constantly changing patterns, surface, curling light. There is a playfulness with the way the light and water create delicate lines and patterns during low tide. It’s as if the light and water themselves are constantly, rhythmically, collaborating.

In photographing, the more precise I got about a moment and the creation of form, the more precise the feeling. On a calm, less windy day, the sound and steady rhythm of the waves rolling in reminds me of a peaceful sleep. At some point I must have realized that exploring underwater would be next. I used a small, waterproof camera and kept close to the shoreline to see better how the light changes underwater and what the horseshoe crab looked like there. Again, algae floated into the frame creating a respite from the horseshoe crab. It was a suggestion of the underwater world in which the horseshoe crab lives and which is a mystery to me.

Deep Time is a complex book: divided in multiple chapters, it includes photos from archives, scientific images, texts, as well as a rich selection from the thousands of photographs you took for this project. Can you describe a little further the process of creation of the book ?

It was an intense collaboration with Rob van Hoesel, publisher and designer at The Eriskay Connection, as I was still photographing while we were discussing the design and edit! Maybe it’s also worth saying that there was a confluence of difficulties in my life, which affected the process of creating the book and became the emotional force of the work. Thank goodness Rob was there as a source of patience and creative ideas. He took the lead in doing the first edit and sequence and it changed many times as we went back and forth making decisions together. In my mind, and Rob may remember differently, the chapter approach was partly a result of having so many images and needing to organize them in a way that made sense before the edit. I had folders on my computer labelled “horseshoe crab at night,” “embryos”, “Moon,”, “Sun,” “Light and Water”, etc. just so I could keep track of the ones I was selecting for the book. What I love about the final edit is that it begins and ends with water and there is a sense that something larger and unknowable exists beyond it. In between are related themes and dimensions…all referring to time in its complexity.


Lynn Alleva Lilly, Deep Time, courtesy the artist / Eriskay Connection

Lynn Alleva Lilly, Deep Time, courtesy the artist / Eriskay Connection

Initially, I had pretty strong views about not having too much text because I see my work as more focused on the photograph. However, we felt that because the scientific text is so inspiring and interesting it should be included. The question was how to do that in a way that did not detract from or intrude on the images, but rather complement the whole. In my view, Rob came up with a beautiful way to do this with smaller font and placement on the page that seems like the text is floating throughout. After working on different cover options that came close, Rob emailed to say that a wonderful idea suddenly came to him. The color of the book cover should be the color of a warm moon and the slip case a silk print of one of the water images. In this way, the moon and water have a relationship in the book design. Taking the book out and putting it back in the slip case further strengthens the idea. We ultimately agreed that a horseshoe crab should be on the cover in some form and I found a photograph in my archives that could be reproduced nicely as a kind of drawing. In the end, it was important that we both believed in the book and trusted each other to work things out. In that sense, I keep learning from these collaborations. 


Lynn Alleva Lilly, Deep Time, courtesy the artist / Eriskay Connection

In the 18th century James Hutton, a Scottish geologist, first theorised the concept of deep time : the before unthinkable timescale required to describe the geological age of our planet. This timescale felt so incommensurable, that Hutton saw « no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end ». Things, however, have changed. Verlyn Klinkenborg, whom you also quote at the beginning of your book, wrote that « one way to talk about the Anthropocene – the geological age that begins with direct human influence over the earth's natural systems – is to say that at last, tragically, geological time is all too observable. » We witness the end of species, of ecosystems. Species such as the horseshoe crab, who crawled our planet for millions of years and survived catastrophic events that wiped out most of Hearth living creatures, are now endangered. What does deep time mean to you and how might we read it, in this context ?

I understand what Klinkenborg is saying here. Deep time, as defined by geologists, seems urgent now, particularly if we can observe our human impact on the layers of the hearth. I would add that, for me, to begin to imagine and understand deep time, which is so difficult to grasp, it helps to have a felt experience through an artistic creative process as much as one informed by scientific discoveries. In the creative process, losing your “self” can allow all of these other worlds in and let different ways of understanding emerge. The excitement and fear of seeking uncertainty and accepting not knowing what we don’t know is so important in that process. Yet, that brief moment of feeling deep time goes away in an instant. Maybe, on the darker side, it also requires letting go and imagining Earth without us. I hope not.

We felt “something infinitely healing” (to use again the title of one of your chapters) in looking at your book, something strangely poetic about the life of this awkward, not so cute animal and the slow cycles of existence in its marine habitat. Did you feel the same while doing your project and do you think it changed you in some ways? Maybe we can learn something from observing the horseshoe crab?

Yes, I felt similarly and it absolutely changed me in that I felt deeply connected to everything, not alone. I am so grateful. I think a kind of beauty emerged in the work as the loss I was feeling at the time got transformed in the process of photographing this creature, the weather, water, light, the tides, the moon. The experience also taught me to be open to change, to adapt, to live. It shifted the way I look at our own species and I began to wonder what it means to be human. I wonder what the horseshoe crab has seen with its ten eyes, what do they know, how do they live, how are they still here through all of that change and time? Their lives are so different from human lives yet we share the shoreline, the deep sea, the moon and stars.


Lynn Alleva Lilly, Deep Time, courtesy the artist / Eriskay Connection


Lynn Alleva Lilley is an American photographer born in Washington, DC and currently living in Silver Spring, MD.  At the core of her photographic work is connection with place and nature. She has a particular interest in the photobook as a uniquely intimate way of presenting her photographs.  Her first photobook, Tender Mint, includes photographs made in Jordan (2011-2014) which embody loss, grief, and surprising, otherworldly beauty. The photographs in her recent photobook, Deep Time (Spring 2019), present the mysterious life and world of the Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus.  This work was photographed on the shores of Delaware Bay.  Lynn recently moved back from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Silver Spring, Maryland, where she continues to photograph the woods and streams in Sligo Creek, her neighborhood park, for a body of work tentatively titled il nido (the nest). She began as a self-taught photographer and later studied with photographer Terri Weifenbach in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

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