A most deadly subject

About thirty years ago, I had the idea that doing a story on spiders thinking it might help exorcise of my fear of them.  No spider in Australia inspires more fear than the Sydney Funnel Web, Atrax Robustus.  Its  down-curved fangs, and percussive strike have been known to penetrate boot leather and pierce the human thumbnail. It has a reputation as the world’s deadliest spider. This then, made it an absolutely compelling subject for this confirmed arachnophobe.

With the writer, Robin Osborne, I spent several days seeking out their haunts. We worked alongside pest control experts in the northern suburbs of Sydney, who were collecting Funnel Web spiders for the anti-venene research that was being carried on at Macquarie University. In one garden alone we collected more than a dozen spiders, from an area of little more than two square metres. We photographed the spiders being “milked” of their venom in the lab and were told that it was  not unheard of for the spider being milked to run up the pipette used to draw the droplets of venom from its fangs and strike at the lab technician..

In 1980, brilliant scientist named Struan Sutherland, had developed an anti-venene. Since that time there have been no deaths from funnel-web bites, but the knowledge that there was an antidote to their venom did little to allay my fear, especially when photographing them at close range with a 55mm Micro Nikkor lens. Sutherland, who had been bitten several times during his research, told us that he could no longer even be in the room where venom milking was being done, as his reaction to microscopic air-borne particles made him severely ill.

Wanting to photograph the spider under controlled conditions I made a box from perspex with a front glass panel of optically flat glass from a Durst  5″x7″large format negative carrier. I asked the University researchers if they would settle a spider into the box which was then delivered to my studio.

Having already got a number of good shots of spiders in natural surroundings, I thought I wanted to make a picture that would make a dramatic picture that would show off the spider’s form. Inspired by a picture I had seen by Pete Turner in Esquire magazine of a striking Tiger Snake (curiously another exceedingly venemous Australian), I decided to light the creature with studio flash: a soft box to the front and a background light on some red seamless paper behind. Given the dangerous nature of the subject, the idea of red being the dominant colour against the black glossy form of the spider, seemed particularly appropriate.

I photographed the spider every few days over a period of some weeks, getting it to rear into a striking position by disturbing it with a drinking straw through the top of my improvised tank while watching through the viewfinder. Sometimes its response would be so threatening that I would jump back from the camera in alarm, even though I knew there was a panel of glass between us.

Sydney funnel-web spider, Atrax Robustus

Sydney funnel-web spider, Atrax Robustus

All the time the spider was in the studio, whenever it was not being photographed, we had to ensure that there were large and obvious warning signs on the box and that it was out of reach of curious hands. What my insurance company might have thought about me giving a home to such a dangerous “pet”, I hate to think. Naturally, I didn’t ask.

Pictures from this shoot still sell regularly. Did the experience help with my arachnophobia? While undertaking the story gave me a deeper understanding of arachnids, particularly Atrax Robustus, the experience didn’t help. On several occasions, I woke up in the night thrashing around and in a cold sweat, imagining that there were funnel web spiders in my bed. Eventually, I’m happy to say, after about a year these nightmares went away. But I’ll still jump a mile, whenever I encounter spiders up close and personal, even if I know they are a harmless species.


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Filed under Australian, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls, Stock photography

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