Photo Synthesis

Retired professor Alan Heilman has spent a lifetime getting up close and personal with plants—under the lens of his microscope and through the lens of his camera.

Helianthus annuus (Sunflower) 0394, The Botanical Photography of Alan S. Heilman, © Alan S. Heilman, © The University of Tennessee Libraries, 2011.

“I don’t have an office here anymore, but we can talk in here.”

Pushing open a door with his cane and flicking on the lights, Alan Heilman steps into a faculty lounge on the fourth floor of Hesler Biology. He sits at the table and talks about sunflowers, his favorite type of flower to photograph.

“It’s my favorite plant. When I was in first or second grade, the teacher gave us a little paper cup of soil and sunflower seeds to plant,” Heilman says. He points to the kitchen area of the lounge. “That thing grew to be as high as those cabinets.”

The retired UT botany professor is just as proud of his photography, a garden of more than a thousand photographs of trees, flowers, mosses, ferns, and other plants taken across a span of more than sixty years—and counting. Eight of his photos are now featured in a collection of notecards sold by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology to raise funds for instructional and academic programs, including undergraduate and graduate research and travel funds for students to participate in meetings and workshops. His photography is also collected digitally at the University of Tennessee Libraries.

Reflecting back on his career of photography and botany, Heilman recalls when his love for the two fields first sprouted. One day in high school, Heilman read a column about microscopes in one of his library’s copies of Nature magazine. The column, “Under the Microscope,” was written by a professor in Miami who had established the American Society of Amateur Microscopists.

After doing a bit of research, Heilman discovered the secretary/treasurer for the organization lived in his town—only eight or nine blocks away.

“He was a fellow who had only graduated high school,” Heilman says. “He worked for the phone company and had a lab in his attic with a microscope. It was just a revelation.”

Heilman loved working in the lab and looking at specimens through the microscope, and the secretary/treasurer taught him how to photograph specimens through the microscope. Heilman’s parents bought him a microscope for Christmas that year, and he set up a little lab at home. Meanwhile, his father taught him the ins and outs of photography and how to develop pictures in the dark room in their basement.

“My parents were very supportive,” Heilman says.

Luckily, Heilman had a local community of fellow microscope lovers. The local chapter of the American Society of Amateur Microscopists met once a month at the University of Pittsburgh in the lab of a botanist who taught microtechnology.

“After high school, I went to the University of Pittsburgh, and he immediately became my undergraduate advisor,” Heilman says. “He even gave me my own workspace in his office.”

Thanks to his combined fascination with microscopy, photography, and plants, botany was a natural field of study for the young Heilman.

“I was a goner,” he says with a smile.

Roger Hagy, Jr.