Since we often look to artists to help us see the otherwise unremarkable—a tree, a stone, a wave—with newfound wonder, it’s fitting that San Francisco photographer Josie Iselin recalls the exact moment she first became captivated by a marine element so common that most beachcombers ignore it entirely: seaweed.
“I was out on Duxbury Reef—off Bolinas, in West Marin—in 2009 with a wonderful scientist from the California Academy of Sciences to study the tide pools’ invertebrate inhabitants,” says Iselin, who has published eight books about the beauty inherent in natural forms. Her latest is the stunning volume The Curious World of Seaweed (Heyday Books).
“Everyone else was oohing and aahing about the starfish, the nudibranchs [mollusks], and the critters, and no one was paying attention to the marine algae, but I happened to pick up a scrap and hold it up to the sky. Oh my goodness, it was so beautiful, an intense magenta that smacked me in the eye.”
That arresting color also sparked Iselin’s curiosity: Why would seaweed occur in the wild in a vibrant palette ranging from grassy green and earthy brown to pale rose and even deep purple? The intertidal zone, that rich sliver of coastal territory where the ocean meets the land, casting the sea’s bounty and detritus onto the wrack line, has fueled Iselin’s artistic imagination ever since.
She recalls returning home from Bolinas and going into her studio that first day with the idea of laying a purplish specimen of Cryptopleura ruprechtiana (hidden rib) on her scanner’s transparency adapter. The resulting images revealed the intricate formal beauty of what she calls these “spectacular eco-engineers” of life, which oxygenate our waters and form the base of the earth’s food chain.
Iselin’s new book includes striking, luminous images of 16 West Coast kelps and seaweeds in their diverse forms and textures—perforated leafy fronds, long slender blades, air-filled bulbs—accompanied by historical botanical illustrations and Iselin’s own poetic essays on seaweed’s vital role in the oceanic ecosystem.
Iselin regularly visits Northern California beaches in rubber boots at low tide, looking for algal discoveries to later scan and fix in time, transforming them into the signature, Marimekko-like abstractions she publishes in book form and as large-scale prints shown in galleries and museums.
“It’s an interesting line I’m walking as an artist between capturing something scientific and my own design aesthetic,” says Iselin. “I like to let each specimen speak for itself. I think of these as portraits.”