Brandy Watts: Art and Science Merge in Book of Alain Liogier’s Field Photographs

MLIS candidate’s first book explores botanical research in the Dominican Republic; a book signing on April 27 will take place in the IS Salon.

Although many students in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies have had internship and job experience that often leads to prestigious positions in a variety of fields, it is uncommon for students like Brandy Watts to end up with a published book before graduation. However, the MLIS candidate, who graduates this spring, has done just that. Her volume on “The Field Photographs of Alain H. Liogier: Plants of Hispaniola, Dominican Republic, 1968-1969” (New York: New York Botanical Garden Press. 2017, Print) examines the renowned botanist’s practice of capturing plant specimens through Kodachrome prints that depict each of them in their natural environment.

While earning her first master’s degree in lens-based media at the School of Visual Arts, Watts worked as an intern at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, which involved curating and digitizing plant specimens for a project on the Caribbean region, she came across a specimen of Liogier’s, which attracted her attention.

“[Liogier had] collected some 20,000 specimens, and roughly 217 of them had field photographs attached to the specimen sheets, which is an unusual method for botanists,” says Watts. “The field photograph shows the plant specimen growing in its natural habitat before having been collected. By attaching it to the specimen sheet, Liogier may have seen a certain research value in having all the collection material together, which consists of the plant specimen, collection label, locality map, and field photograph.”

Watts points out that while field photographs of specimens are usually taken, attaching them to specimen sheets is an uncommon practice in plant science research.

“When a botanist collects, it’s not just about a plant specimen, the collection information, the field notebook, or the photographs,” she says. “All of the collection material together inform each other. Just having the locality information doesn’t give you the breadth of the field collecting [or] all the information that was synthesized while in the field.

“The value of Liogier’s field photographs is that they are visual records,” says Watts.”Visual records have metadata, which can be entered or extracted into records as well as visual properties from which record abstracts can be generated. As visual records, the complexity of information available through the image, which reflects memory, witnessing, movement, and trajectory isn’t entirely reducible.”

Liogier, who died in 2009, wrote more than 100 scientific journal articles and over 30 books devoted to the study of botany, including his quintessential work on the flora of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, which form the foundation of botanical science for the Caribbean. The NYBG, where Liogier served as a research associate in the 1960s, houses more than 300 species of plants that Liogier discovered in his long career as a botanist.

While writing the book, Watts had the unique opportunity to visit his widow Perpha Liogier and their daughter Tersa Harwood in Fort Worth, where Liogier spent his final years as an emeritus researcher at the Botanic Research Institute of Texas and the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

“What is interesting about the Liogiers is that during [Alain’s] career, his family would go with him to collect specimens,” says Watts. “It was great to hear their experience of collecting with him in the field. Up until then, I had read so much about Liogier and had become familiar with [him and his work] through the field photographs, so it was nice to hear another side of who he was. It was interesting to see photographs that he took outside of [specimen] collecting as well.”

Watts, whose research for the book was supported by a private fellowship, is currently working on her MLIS thesis, which focuses on the value of field photographs in plant science research. One of the three case studies that were conducted as part of her thesis research involves the field photographs of Mildred Mathias, renowned American botanist and namesake of the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden at UCLA.

Watts says that her interest in botanical records is largely due to the perspective she gained on collecting while working at the NYBG.

“What was most interesting about being an intern at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is that it gave me access to the field of plant science in a way that I would not have had otherwise,” she says. “Through working there and spending time with the plant specimens, field collecting notebooks, and field photographs, I realized that this practice of field collecting really fascinated me, particularly, the role of photographic technology in plant science research through the years. You can see the progression of plant science through the media.”

Concurrent to her NYBG internship, Watts worked at the garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library as a curatorial consultant.

“The Mertz Library has a photo vault that has thousands of photographs that span the history of photography as well as plant science research,” Watts recalls. “It includes lantern slides, glass plate negatives, 35 mm, 4X5… but this photo vault is largely inaccessible to the public. While the media within the climate controlled vault is properly housed, it still needs to be catalogued and digitized, which necessitates grant money.

“My experience with the Steere Herbarium and the Mertz Library was part of the impetus for me to come to UCLA and begin the MLIS program,” she says. “Specifically, I am interested in making what’s called ‘hidden collections’ accessible to the public, particularly, materials that are valuable across fields of research.”

This past summer, Watts conducted research on how technology has enabled botanists and institutions to use field photographs in ways that would not have been possible in Mathias’ and Liogier’s time. She would ultimately like to work in collaboration with a herbarium and library in data and media management.

“The affordances of digital photography and the nature of online databases allow for viewing multiple images of plant specimens and multiple images of specimen habitats at once,” Watts says. “The design of research databases allows for all of that information to be together in a way that even if Liogier had taken ten photographs, he could not have included all of them on the specimen sheet.”

Watts says that her thesis committee of UCLA IS Professors Johanna Drucker, Ellen Pearlstein, and Chair Jonathan Furner, and Jon Christensen, adjunct faculty at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Department of History, and the Center for Digital Humanities, have “all been very gracious and helpful.”

“Their varying perspectives on information and collection materials in plant science research have provided multiple vantage points for approaching my thesis,” says Watts.

While taking a course on preservation taught by Professor Pearlstein, Watts did an assessment project on the UCLA Herbarium, which contains approximately 200,000 specimens of mostly vascular plants from throughout North America and Europe, as well as a comprehensive collection from the Santa Monica Mountains.

“I chose to assess the UCLA Herbarium because it was within my interests in plant science, but also because it is in the process of becoming a more active herbarium, so I thought that would be especially interesting,” says Watts. “As part of the assignment, we were asked to draw up a 25-page assessment of the archive as well as develop a short video.

“Part of the function of that video was to convey to people the definition of a herbarium,” she notes. “Herbariums are these research institution gems located all over the world that reflect not just plant science, but habitat transformation, land conservation, and climate change. They are particularly valuable in terms of the potential research that can be done with their records.”

A book signing event honoring Watts and “The Field Photographs of Alain H. Liogier: Plants of Hispaniola, Dominican Republic, 1968-1968” will be held on Thursday, April 27 at 4:30 p.m. in the IS Salon in the GSE&IS Building in North Campus.

To more information or to order a copy of the book, click here.

To attend the April 27 book signing, contact Elizabeth Kalbers at kalbers@gseis.ucla.ed or 310-206-9393. 

Photo by Mare Nazaire, Rancho Santa Ana Herbarium