To whom does a yard belong? The answer, if there is one, can’t be arrived at without a keen eye and a bit of patience. Photographer Rick Lieder brings both to bear in Step Gently Out, a picture book for all ages that documents the incredible diversity of small life within a single midwestern backyard. We asked Lieder to describe the process of capturing the book’s images, which seem nearly to quiver with urgency and light.
Step Gently Out began almost a decade ago, with a wish to look with new eyes at my ordinary backyard and the small life hidden within it. I wanted to go out with no preconceived ideas, and photograph whatever insects and other creatures I found; to have fun, experiment, and, hopefully, create some interesting images.
Although my equipment is more sophisticated these days, I began with a point-and-shoot camera (the resolution of which was less than that of most current smart phones.) I use whatever light I find, but since I’m flash-less, there’s often not enough illumination for a sharp exposure—the frantic pace of life lived in the micro-wilderness leaving behind just a blurred memory of its presence. Using only the sun and whatever light reflects throughout my small yard presents its own set of challenges, and the limited depth of focus helps me create a less clinical, more emotional and impressionistic view.
Ninety percent of my time is still spent in my backyard, but I try to photograph these small lives wherever I find them. My success rate is low—on many outings I return with nothing worth keeping—but when it all comes together, seeing these animals on their own terms is really a marvel: honey bees in flight carrying golden loads of pollen, fireflies mating and hovering over twilight fields, mosquitoes with a belly full of blood, and newly-born praying mantis nymphs emerging from their egg cases.
I want to celebrate the poetry in these tiny animals living their lives, as well as the poetry of their surroundings, the leaves and the grass and the light.
As an illustrator, I’ve worked with publishers for many years, creating conceptual book covers for novels ranging from mysteries, science fiction, and books based on The X-Files TV series, to Newbery Award-winning books for children. I met novelist and poet Helen Frost at a book signing, and she responded strongly to my wildlife images. After sending her many of my favorites, she wrote a short poem based not just on specific photographs, but also on the feeling of being immersed in their vibrant world.
It was a true collaboration, very different from the usual picture-book process, in which a writer and an illustrator often never meet or talk. The words and images in Step Gently Out have a synergy that reflects their shared creation. Helen and I went back and forth, changing and fine-tuning the poem and images, before I produced a book dummy to send to publishers. Almost three years of rejections followed, but the book eventually found a fine home at Candlewick Press, which published it in March 2012.
Picture books will continue to evolve and include video and animation in the future. Since I work in video as well as with still images, I produced a short trailer for the book—another way to tell the story of the micro-wilderness, where everyone eats, moves, mates, and dies, over and over; a tumultuous and beautiful cycle, always challenging us to see it anew, with a child’s eyes.
Rick Lieder is a painter and photographer living near Detroit, Michigan. His photograph of a bee, suspended in air, appeared on the back cover of the March/April 2012 issue of Orion.