Nature’s Pretty Secrets

Photographer Jackie Labovitz uses a mix of skill and unwavering patience to capture images of hard-to-find plants and animals.

Chiles Larson

Nature’s Pretty Secrets

Jackie Bailey Labovitz is known as an “understory artist”—meaning she is a specialty photographer who goes to great lengths to find, and then take pictures of things most people never see. Usually her quests involve countless hours combing damp woodland floors for specific flowers, amphibians and insects, then spending considerable time on her belly to photograph them in meticulous detail. She targets wildlife we would never see otherwise because the plants or animals tend to live only in specific places at very specific times.

Understory art is trickier than it sounds. For one thing, finding particular specimens can be difficult because those who know them best tend to be close-lipped about their whereabouts. And then there is the matter of catching up to a particular target at just the right moment. In the case of plants, on which Labovitz concentrates her efforts, some bloom only for a few hours or days. Once, Labovitz spent 13 hours hunting (she will only say somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains) for elusive Lady Slippers (seen above). Then she spent hours more waiting for the flower to reach its peak bloom. Her determination has paid off: 16 of her images are now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Naturalist Center in Leesburg. In addition, Labovitz will exhibit at R.H. Ballard Art in Washington, Virginia starting November 20, and at the Norfolk Botanical Garden beginning March 1, 2011.

Labovitz, who grew up outside Danville, came late to her specialty. After becoming a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1980s, she made her bones in Washington, D.C. as an independent curator managing collections all over the world for about 12 years, primarily for international corporations and the U.S. State Department, both of which used her collections as public relations tools to impress its host countries.

By 2003, she had decided to create her own art. “After retiring from my professional life, I moved to the Shenandoah Valley to chase butterflies—my childhood passion,” she says. “This time I would catch them through the lens.” She began talking to native plant lovers, hikers and park rangers about where to find lesser-known wildlife—“anyone I thought would share a clue.” Her sleuthing led to a major coup last April when she captured a shot of a blooming Twinleaf—a rare flower that is protected by laws in at least four states.

While most understory artists shoot with flash and tripod, Labovitz prefers to position herself at eye-level with her subject and shoot using only natural light. The result: the most accurate image possible. Helene Lisy of the Smithsonian Naturalist Center says that Labovitz’s photos “encourage people to look down on their walks through the woods and to visit nature frequently….” She adds: “There are secrets that divulge themselves to those who really look.”

The work is solitary but rewarding. “My field guides and my camera are my only woodland companions,” says Labovitz. When a plant or flower is perfectly posed, “I approach [it] as I would a precious sculpture in the finest of coiffed museum gardens.” In other words, very carefully. It is a specialty that requires unwavering patience—“going back again and again, waiting for [something] to be in perfect light, in its most perfect state of growth.”

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