Lynn Alleva Lilley, Deep Time

JTF (just the facts): Published by The Eriskay Connection in 2019 (here). Hardcover in sleeve, 176 pages, with roughly 200 color photographs. Includes an essay by Helen J. Bullard. In an edition of 750 copies. Designed by Rob van Hoesel. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of the American photographer Lynn Alleva Lilley often explores the intersection of art, science, and the natural world. For a number of years, during the summer months, she has been photographing the light and water around Delaware Bay on the Atlantic coast of the United States. This exercise led to her a fascination, or perhaps better an obsession, with the Atlantic horseshoe crab. Horseshoe crabs, one of nature’s great survivors, have been around for at least 450 million years, and they’ve managed to stay largely the same through the ages, from the eyes on their tail to the antibacterial cells in their blood. The horseshoe crab has a hard exoskeleton and ten legs, and is closely related to scorpions and spiders.

Lilley made the horseshoe crab the main subject of a photographic project, which was recently published as a photobook entitled Deep Time. The term “deep time” refers to “geological time and encompasses the age of the earth which scientists estimate to be about 4.5 billion years old.” Just like Lilley, I also occasionally stumble upon the shells of the horseshoe crab while on the shore, and as a result, this book sparked my curiosity. 

Lilley started photographing the species a few years ago, and as her interested deepened, she got in touch with scientists at the University of Delaware in Lewes to learn more about their work and research. The photographs included in the book were taken on the shores in Lewes, and also in the laboratory using microscopes. Deep Time takes us on a journey revealing the captivating world of these creatures, combining poetic photographs, illustrations, and encyclopedic details. 

Deep Time is a hardcover book in a sleeve: a drawing of a crab appears on the cover of the book, which matches the light yellow color of the moon, while wavy sand patterns in light green are reproduced on the sleeve; together they offer a thoughtful combination. The book is divided into eight chapters – each has a poetic title and highlights a certain aspect of the horseshoe crab species. The book opens with a sequence entitled “Strange and Wondrous” showing the calm and beautiful mottled surface of water, followed by something in that water – it is a crab swimming on its back. The sequence of subsequent images depicts the horseshoe crabs in various states: in the water, in the sand, and on the seaside rocks. Small blocks of text placed close to the visuals provide details about the species: “while the horseshoe crab does look menacing, it is not dangerous. Rather, it is gentle and harmless,” “use different habitats at different stages of life,” “live up to 20 years and grow through a process of molting.”

I can easily imagine Lilley patiently observing these horseshoe crabs: spending long hours walking along the shore, waiting in the darkness, noticing the movement, capturing their surroundings, documenting their life cycle, and constantly asking questions. Her photographs are poetic and timeless. I find the photographs shot at night particularly enchanting and mysterious. They document the spawning of the horseshoe crabs, which happens each May and June during a full moon, with millions of horseshoe crabs coming ashore. One of the photographs is a close up of a crab in the water with its tail up; it is followed by a full spread image showing a dozen crabs mating under the safety of night, with a flashlight adding a green tone to the images, the thousands of eggs reflecting the greenish light.

The next chapter takes us through some scientific history: Lilley uses historical images and illustrations to place the horseshoe crab in a wider context. We learn that the horseshoe crab “has survived several mass extinctions, including The Great Dying which wiped out most species on Earth.” Near the end of the book, Lilley take us back to the water and its meditative moods and muted colors: close up of waves with sunlight reflecting off them, gray clouds over the ocean, raindrops falling on the surface of the water, and the squelch of the rising tides. 

The essay by Helen J. Bullard, a research-based storyteller, ties the visual flow and the encyclopedic details together into one factual yet poetic narrative. It also calls our attention to broader environmental issues. Over the years, the horseshoe crabs were used as fertilizer and bait, and most recently in medical research. As their population is declining, in 2016 the horseshoe crabs were marked as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, just a step away from “endangered.”

In many ways, Deep Time is a neatly self-contained project, as it balances personal curiosity with a more universal effort to understand the world around us. Presented in an elegant and thoughtful manner, it is a visual exploration of the uniqueness and mystery of our planet and a celebration of life. It is much more than a natural history compendium or a scientific survey – it follows Lilley’s journey in discovering the complexities and joys of the horseshoe crab, and then communicates her growing passion and understanding with clarity and grace. This book was a wonderful discovery for me, and I am sure that next time I stumble upon a horseshoe crab, it will be an even more exciting encounter. 

Collector’s POV: Lynn Alleva Lilley does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As a result, collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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