A vision of the world where bugs are organized like us

THE ILLUSION OF ORDERLY PROGRESS by Barbara Norfleet Alfred A. Knopf 101 pp., $20

A line of garishly colored tropical beetles compete in a beauty contest for a gold star. The caption reads, "Am I pretty?"

Another photo shows a beetle riding a walking stick bare-back. The caption: "Domestication #1."

Still photos from Disney's "A Bug's Life"?

Not quite. These pictures are more like Kafkaesque visions of bugs taking over the world. Or at least their own world.

In "The Illusion of Orderly Progress," photographer Barbara Norfleet presents whimsical still-lifes of insects and arachnids in poses that illustrate the failings and foibles of human beings.

What she does with these insects - Earth's least-expressive creatures - gives the photographs their impact. No one is surprised to see a computer-generated bug in "Antz" or "A Bug's Life." But photos of a metallic wood-boring beetle hiding in weeds from giant cicadas - now that's something!

As you might expect, it wasn't easy getting the participants to cooperate. Norfleet shares a comical assessment of her attempt to direct live bugs. "A mistake," she says. "They don't take stage direction well."

Once she tried freezing Mexican cockroaches, but when she let them defrost on her desk during a shoot, a herd of ants began to make off with her models.

Thus, Norfleet discovered the world of dried mail-order bugs from scientific specimen houses around the world. They cost anywhere from 50 cents a dozen to $150 apiece. She poses them in simple sets made from rocks and plants in front of sky backgrounds that she photographed separately.

The effect: a society of beautiful and exotic insects set in scenes suggesting the role each plays in its miniature "culture."

Each image is accompanied with a single witty phrase that suggests an appropriate interpretation of the scene, such as "A Promise of Tomorrow" and "Go Back to Your Homeland."

It's obvious that Norfleet, founder, director, and curator of the Photography Collection at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, admires bugs for their beauty and strangeness.

In his foreword, entomologist Edward Wilson says that Norfleet "means to tell us something about human nature, particularly in its more vainglorious, cowardly, and other foolish manifestations."

Never mind the political satire; the book is worth seeing for the bizarre and colorful insects alone.

*John Christian Hoyle is a freelance writer in New Orleans.

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