The Roaches That Came In from the Cold

For Catherine Chalmers, a cockroach is a blank canvas. And today 18 squirming insects will emerge from her refrigerator to undergo a metamorphosis—into painted players in a tableau she will photograph.

“A frog or a praying mantis, they do interesting things,” says Catherine Chalmers, and she should know. Chalmers has spent the better part of the last decade raising frogs, praying mantises, snakes, and mice in her SoHo loft. Her larger-than-life color photographs of these animals doing interesting things—eating other animals, mostly—have earned her art-world acclaim and popular praise. Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, and collected in the monograph Food Chain (Aperture).

The finished product: Kalanchoe Beetles, 2000.
Courtesy RARE, New York

Fascinating as these creatures are, Chalmers can only go so far with them, since their faces endow them with humanlike personalities. A cockroach, on the other hand, lacks that individuality. It is “a charged subject with a blank canvas,” she says. “I can paint it. I can kill it. I can put a radio collar on it and trace it around my loft.”

When I arrive at her SoHo loft, Chalmers assures me that no cockroaches, radio-collared or otherwise, will be running amok. “I normally do this upstate in the barn,” she says. The main room, which serves as both living room and studio, is clean, spacious, and tastefully decorated, if one considers a border of dead crickets glued to one wall to be tasteful. Working prints of her roach photographs are tacked on the walls; her gallery, Rare, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, will sell the finished, 40-by-60-inch digital prints for $5,000 each.

Chalmers, a tall, slender brunette, looks less an entomologist than a figure skater; she trains at a rink most mornings and has won two masters competitions in the sport. It is warm in the loft, and she is wearing three-stripe Adidas training pants and a spotless white V-neck T-shirt—short sleeved, since roaches prefer tight, dark spaces and might seek shelter under her cuffs.

“Are you scared of roaches?” she asks. “I am.” Perhaps so, but Chalmers conducts herself like a zookeeper visiting The Tonight Show. She is aware of the roaches’ discomfiting and amusing qualities but seems comfortable handling them and takes them seriously.

On the table in front of us are 18 small plastic terraria, each containing a two-inch cockroach. These are Periplaneta, or American cockroaches, she explains. They are larger than the German cockroach common in New York apartments, and they need higher humidity levels to reproduce. “In this building, the Americans could really only breed in the boiler room,” says Chalmers, who orders full-grown Periplanetaby the dozen from a biological-supply company in North Carolina. These 18 arrived a week ago via Airborne Express, packed in a waxy cardboard container.

The day before my visit, Chalmers covered their backs with two coats of green acrylic paint, and over the green, she applied orange-red florets. She has already photographed other roaches done up as ladybugs and bumblebees as they crawled on Gerber daisies and sunflowers. Today’s impostors are not meant to resemble an actual insect but rather to match the plants they will soon encounter.

“After a day of painting roaches, I’m on pins and needles,” Chalmers says. Her enervation is the result of repetitive detail work and the pauses between coats, as well as the strain of keeping her models still. Rodin could talk to his models when they became restless, but to immobilize the cockroaches, Chalmers must put them in the refrigerator. (“You could do it with gas, but I’m not set up like that,” she says.) Ten or 15 minutes in the icebox gives her a minute to work.

Today’s first step is applying the final coat, a satin finish. For the cryogenics, Chalmers has cleared half the bottom shelf of her Sub-Zero refrigerator. She puts in three roaches at a time, parking their terraria in front of the organic milk and Taittinger champagne. “You can see why people wouldn’t want to come here to a dinner party,” she says. A sign-in sheet on the counter keeps track of the rotation so no roach stays in the fridge too long and dies.

When the first cockroach is ready, Chalmers brings it back to the worktable. She burns some sandalwood oil and slips a white mask over her mouth to ward off the roaches’ noxious odor. She squirts a dab of gloss on her blotter and dips a small round brush in it before cracking open the terrarium.

“I used to be a painter,” says Chalmers. A native of northern California, she studied at the Royal College of Art in London. When she became “less interested in the paint than the other things I was using,” she began putting sand and twigs on her canvases. Chalmers moved to New York in 1985, but it was a while before she started keeping animals, and longer still before she figured out what to do with them. “I didn’t think that I could work with live animals while being in the art category, as opposed to the nature category,” she explains. In 1993 she borrowed camera equipment from a neighbor to take extreme close-ups of houseflies. A self-taught photographer, she masters new techniques as necessary.

“I think an assistant wouldn’t want to do this,” Chalmers says as she polishes another thawing cockroach. “Having a studio assistant would be great, but my interaction with animals is part of what I want.” Since ordering her first roach in 1997, she has learned to paint the wings before the head plate, because roaches have a long, sensitive dorsal nerve that becomes overstimulated when they are touched on the back. “It’s easiest if you paint them in a corner,” she says. “It’s also most comfortable for them.” She chose kalanchoe plants for her sets because her agoraphobic subjects might want to seek cover in their plentiful, spoonlike leaves.

She is beginning to make inferences about the differences between the sexes. “Males tend to be longer,” she says. “They knock out better. Females are rounder and hardier. The females are harder to work with.”

After the final roach has been glossed and secured in its cage, Chalmers begins to construct a set. In the middle of a two-by-four-foot tray of white Plexiglas and foam-core board, she places a wooden platform and spreads a thin layer of soil on it. She taps six kalanchoe plants out of their pots and arranges them on the platform to create a hedge. She adds more soil to the mound and sweeps up the excess, so there is a dry moat around the plants. Chalmers then spreads a thick layer of petroleum jelly on the side walls of the tray, so the peripatetic Periplanetacannot escape.

Like the hand-painted roaches themselves, Chalmers’s staging ground helps her raise questions about the relationship between nature and artifice. “In a way, it’s more honest of her,” says Laura Heon, an associate curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, who organized “Unnatural Science,” a group show that included some of the Food Chainpictures. “It’s more artificial for nature photographers to set up an Henri Rousseau tableau in the rain forest than it is for her to put animals on a plain white background.” Heon says her favorite aspect of Chalmers’s photographs is that “her images are so beautiful and so repulsive at the same time. It’s hard to look at them, and it’s harder not to look at them.”

The set built, Chalmers empties out more of the fridge—a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, a Ziploc bag containing film—and loads all 18 roaches in at once. They will stay in for almost a half-hour this time. As she waits, Chalmers snacks on a yogurt-covered energy ba
r and describes her multifaceted roach project. In addition to the impostor series, she has built dollhouse sets for roaches and staged a series of cockroach executions: hangings, drownings, electrocutions, burnings at the stake. There is more to come: two-foot-long, anatomically correct roach sculptures, and videos shot from a “roach’s-eye view.”

“I want to do roach races,” she says. “I want to make a racecourse and blow air on them and watch them go. When the chaos breaks out, it’s really interesting to see a roach panic. Because one panics, and then another panics, and then another—and then it’s pandemonium.” A roach’s anxiety can be fatal. “If it’s panicked for ten minutes, it will die. Once, I had five die on me.”

She stops talking about her work to adjust the lighting. The set is illuminated by one powerful strobe suspended above and slightly behind her, and the sky blue backdrop is lit by two softer backlights. Behind where she will stand is a crash cart with essential supplies: egg cartons, compressed air, spray bottle, clear-plastic slide boxes to trap individual roaches before they panic.

At 3:15, she turns off all the other lights in the living room. Chalmers has worked at a leisurely pace so far, but now she wants all the roaches on the plants before they start moving, so she shifts into high gear. The terraria come out of the refrigerator and over to the set. One by one, Chalmers quickly cracks open a terrarium, picks up the inert roach by its legs or its sides, and places it on the canopy of flowers. “Some, when they wake up, will just fall off,” says Chalmers. “You don’t want to lose them so early in the shoot.”

This time, all of them find their footing. One roach, its head pointed away from Chalmers, shakes its hindquarters furiously. Another has already moved, head down, to hide in the thicket of leaves. Their long, slender antennae begin to swing in all directions, like an entire apartment building searching in vain for better television reception.

Chalmers’s eyes roam the set, slow and intent, like a predator’s. Something catches her attention, and she brings the viewfinder of her Contax 35-millimeter camera to her right eye. The 60-millimeter macro lens lets her shoot from just a few inches away from her subjects, who move too fast for her to use a tripod. “The trouble with this camera is that you breathe and you’re out of focus,” she says.

Chalmers zeros in on one roach and falls silent. She squints, scrunches her nose, and lifts her upper lip. She focuses by rotating the ring around the lens and moving her head slowly forward and back. And then POP!—three strobes flash in sync, punctuated by a small thunderclap. The strobes recharge, and POP!—she takes another picture.

After this initial volley, Chalmers pauses to survey the set. The only sounds in the loft are a Peter Gabriel CD and the chirping of the crickets she raises to feed her frogs. The set smells bittersweet from the roaches and the Vaseline. “It’s kind of boring until they wake up,” she apologizes.

“There’s that one short section, in between when they are just coming out of the cold and before they panic, when they are acting like roaches. That’s what you want.” With her spray bottle, she mists the flowers, and the roaches come to life a little more. One skitters across the top of the canopy. POP! Chalmers is shooting again. She sees a half-hidden roach in the shadow, and picks up a small square of silvered cardboard to use as a reflector.

“Certain photographers like certain lenses. I’m not a wide-angle person. I like getting into where I can’t see myself,” she says, “when it looks like you were crawling through the dirt and you just saw a bug, or you’re looking at some nice flowers and you look a little farther and they’re infested with bugs.” By 5 o’clock, Chalmers has gone through five rolls of Fuji Velvia slide film, and the roaches have either walked off the set into the moat or disappeared among the leaves. Chalmers fills a big plastic terrarium with wood chips, dog food, water, and egg cartons. She greases the sides, and then, beginning with the roaches in the moat, scoops them up with a slide box and a postcard and scrapes them into the terrarium. She keeps a careful tally.

The first few go in without a fight, but then she flicks one a little too slowly, and it almost misses the opening. For the first time today, Chalmers loses her cool. She jumps back and stomps her feet rapidly, like a twitching roach. “It almost got back out,” she says in an awed whisper. She picks up her paintbrush to poke the last few out of the shrubbery. She counts 18 and closes the terrarium. Time to clean up.

“You can come back Tuesday if you like,” she says. “I’m doing an execution.

Blake Eskin last wrote for ARTnews on photographer Elliott Erwitt.

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