Well, at least in the world I live in, they aren’t. The title comes from Gilbert and Sullivan (specifically HMS Pinafore, and a generally nonsensical duet between Buttercup and the Captain, for those of you who are counting), but the sentiment comes from me, and specifically my Nikon, and even more exactly from, well, snails again.

[To interrupt myself for a moment, it’s been a while since I encouraged my reader to visit my photography website, so consider yourself Officially Encouraged. Also, there are in fact photos in this blog entry, there are just a lot of words before you get there. Thanks.]

In the past, I’ve blogged about my obsession with snails and the tiny universe they live in, pretty much oblivious to how very, very important I am (“Up Close and Escargotal“). That led me to wax poetic (putting my random bloviations in the kindest possible light) about humanity’s place in the universe, which is really quite a leap.

Not surprisingly, snails pop up again here, and for that I apologize. Well, I actually don’t apologize, and for two reasons: Reason One, I like snails and this is my blog and so there. Reason Two (and more loftily), just as snails make a remarkably excellent vehicle for the ingestion of yummy garlic butter (partly because eating spoonfuls of garlic butter is generally discouraged, and partly because if you’re going to eat what amounts to spoonfuls of garlic butter, then you should have to at least pay some moral price to offset your wallow in self-indulgent gluttony, and that price is you have to have a mollusk floating in your butter), so too they make—at least in my fevered mind—a remarkably excellent vehicle for making broader generalizations about other things.

(By the way, if you successfully navigated that last sentence then you are a truly unique person of admirable reading skills. Congratulations. On the other hand, if we lost you somewhere in the parenthetical prior to the em-dashed digressive clause, I promise that it gets easier from here on.)

This blog entry is really expanding on the subject of close-ups, and what isolating bits of a subject can do to the nature of the subject, and the viewer’s experience of something completely other than what it is he or she is looking at. It’s not unlike what I’ve observed about taking pictures of the landscape from high in the air (“Abstracted at 30,000 Feet“): At a certain point, whether you’re really up close or really far away, the thing-ness of a thing can disappear altogether into something much more than the limited subject itself. Because I like to make up names for things, we’ll call that phenomenon, that approach, “isolative photography,” because it sounds kinda smart very Serious.

Perhaps I shall write a wordy treatise on it one of these days, making copious use of parentheticals and em dashes and semicolons. And that’ll be way different from what’s been going on here so far.

Anyway, snails don’t entirely fit in to this, because my macro work with the aquarium is really pretty traditional macro work: Thanks to a 105mm 1:2.8 Sigma DG Macro lens, we can now demonstrate conclusively, for anyone who was wondering, that Yes, snails do have teeth:

 Close-up view of a snail

But what that does illustrate is the importance, or at least the coolness, of getting really close to a subject, and finding—as I did here—something not really expected. What I’d expected was a cool close-up of a snail’s face, with all those little tentacles waving around. And what I got, when I looked at the photos, was a big toothy snail-smile. (If you click on the photo, it will loom large, and you can examine the dental characteristics of the common bivalve to your heart’s content.)

More to the point, though, is this:

 close-up view of a recessed weapon on a fighter jet fuselage

What appears at first glance to be a steampunky robotic eye is in fact one of the recessed weapons on the fuselage of an F-86 Sabre jet fighter. But in isolation, only the most nitpicky of aircraft enthusiasts would know that.

When he heard that I’d been to an airplane museum, my father—who is quite the aircraft aficionado—pleaded with me not to send him any pictures of airplanes. (“I really don’t want to see another three-quarters view of a P-51,” he said—because he talks that way—as if I would ever send him such a thing. Others do, though, knowing his interests, so I sympathize.) Of course, it’s highly unlikely that I would take such a picture. Whether or not he wants extreme close-up views of a recessed gun or a propeller on a pretty red airplane or the turbofan on a jet engine or  is another question, but that’s what he gets from me.

Like life, isolative photography is not just about airplanes and snails. Here’s an interesting (well, at least to me) juxtaposition of an aerial “abstract” of the Western United States, and a close up of a similarly-colored rock near Palm Springs, California.

And here are close-up views of carnival glass and a Prius headlight, both of which become much more interesting abstracts in isolation from the rest of the object. A picture of a vase, and a picture of a car, are (at least to me) not very interesting. But in getting close, in isolating parts from the whole, they take on a more uniquely evocative character.

It’s interesting how the view through the viewfinder can show the photographer how the isolated image flattens compared with the dimensional reality of the subject. This photo is a perspective shot of a canvass awning-covered walkway on the campus of the California State University in Long Beach.

At the end of the walkway is an enormous blue corrugated aluminum pyramid (don’t ask) that houses a basketball stadium. Here, though, the image is forcibly flattened in the frame, and becomes more interesting (again, to me at least) than a pleasant location shot showing off a Southern California college campus.

The main thing I’m going on about here, I guess, is that it’s often pieces of things that are more compelling than the things themselves. The fact is that anyone can, these Webbish days, see all the pictures they want of airplanes and cars and vases and landscapes. The whole world seems to be equipped with perfectly functional cameras built into their phones, and millions of people every day blithely take snapshots that do the trick if you’re wondering what something looks like.

The trick is to go beyond the “looks like” and, to go back to the snails again, briefly, find the teeth. Look for the interesting details, the pieces in your viewfinder that become more than a vintage jet fighter and take on an independent character all their own. Get up close to your subjects, and then get closer, and you’ll find new and unexpected—and sometimes better—subjects right in front of you.