Samuel James, Nightairs

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Fw:Books (here). Softcover (25 x 32 cm), 80 pages, with 37 color photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. Design by Hans Gremmen. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of the American photographer and naturalist Samuel James often addresses issues of biodiversity and resource extraction. His earlier project “The Water of My Land” (from 2012) documented the illicit oil trade on the Niger Delta. James is originally from Ohio, and in 2019 he decided to move back, to a cabin in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in the southern part of the state. When he arrived there, in May, it was the beginning of firefly season. The lightning bugs were everywhere, and apparently that area is known for its firefly diversity. These tiny insects produce a chemical reaction inside their bodies, known as bioluminescence, that allows them to light up. Usually they glow in the yellow spectrum, and appear to light up for a variety of reasons but mainly as a courtship display and a means of communication. 

James spent four successive summers observing and photographing the mating rituals of fireflies. Last year the series was published as a photobook simply titled Nightairs. It was shortlisted for the 2023 Paris Photo–Aperture First Photobook Award, with one of the jurors rightly noting that the book “achieves the most out of the essential elements it takes to make a book: ink and paper.”

Nightairs is a slim book, yet it definitely takes the full advantage of the form. The photograph of a pond at the sundown dotted with bright yellow spots of various sizes takes up the entire cover. The title and the artist’s name are placed in the left top corner in a bright yellow font. The book is saddle-stitched and the bright yellow stitches beautifully complement its visual content. All of the photographs are gorgeously printed full bleed on uncoated paper, with a thin black border around them. There are no page numbers, nor any other design elements, immersing us entirely into its striking visual flow. An essay by the artist and captions identifying fireflies by type and the year/month when they were photographed, all in yellow font against black background, close the book. 

James has identified twenty-six different species in the foothills of Appalachia, and nineteen of them make a flash code. Working on the series, James experimented with short and ultra-long exposures, running from several seconds to an hour. The opening spread is pitch-black with just a couple of bright yellow dots and spirals, a striking introduction to the visual storyline. It is followed by a photo of a pond at dusk as fireflies make their moves. Some of the photographs turn very abstract, and fireflies movements are represented as dots, curls, lines and swirls. The fireflies glow on its pages, and the gorgeous printing of the photographs makes interaction with the book even more memorable. 

The flash codes of various sub-species vary in “color, pattern, and duration, and by habitat, hour of night, and time of season”. Some fireflies can flash for hours while others flash only for a brief period. They also light up during different parts of the evening and night, and while some prefer meadows, others prefer trees. James’s images capture these elements of time and rhythm, reflected in the book’s visual flow. Flipping through the pages, the scene changes from a dark forest dotted with the presence of hundreds of fireflies to the spreads with greenish short streaks and isolated blobs. 

In the past few years, there have been a number of notable photobooks looking at the wonders of nature. One of them, When Red Disappears by the Dutch artist Elspeth Diederix (reviewed here), captured striking underwater scenes, and was also printed on black paper. And in her book Deep Time (reviewed here), Lynn Alleva Lilley presented a thoughtful investigation of the horseshoe crab. James’s book similarly reminds us how delicate the fireflies are, yet they have a vital role in the larger ecosystem.

Fireflies face a dim future. Some reports suggest that the population of fireflies has been declining in recent years, as light pollution and habitat loss interrupt their mating signals. James’s hauntingly beautiful photographs immerse us into this enchanting insect world, ultimately reminding us of the uniqueness and mystery of our planet. In this way, Nightairs stands out, its striking photographs presented in a smartly conceived photobook.

Collector’s POV: Samuel James does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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