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Joe Rossi made a "V" from a pair of rabbit ears for his book "Minnesota's Hidden Alphabet." Brian Basham/Tribune

Natural photos of the alphabet

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Twenty-six images, representing the 26 different letters of the alphabet.

That’s all former St. Paul Pioneer Press photographer Joe Rossi needed to capture when he embarked on a mission to photograph “nature’s hidden alphabet” as an assignment for the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine, shortly after leaving the newspaper several years ago.

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Yet it took him 17 months and 12,000 photographs to do it. And even then, finding a natural object, plant or animal that perfectly embodied the letter “Q” proved elusive.

The image he finally used was abstract enough that when the Minnesota Historical Society Press asked to use his photographs for a children’s book on “Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet,” the editor asked him to find another photo for that letter.

“I said no,” Rossi told a group of about two dozen enthralled visitors at a Saturday presentation inside the Detroit Lakes Public Library.

Though he did finally agree to re-shoot the image for the letter “S,” he steadfastly refused to redo the letter “Q” because finding even that abstract representation had proved to be a particularly frustrating assignment.  Once he completed the initial alphabet project, Rossi said he needed a break from looking for letter images in everything he saw — but now, he often finds himself doing it again.

Still, he said, that perfect letter Q eludes him — so much so that he even jokingly offered a reward to anyone at Saturday’s presentation who could find one for him.  Of course, Rossi added, part of the reason why certain letters proved so difficult to capture was because there were certain rules imposed on the project.  For instance, all of the images used had to represent something that actually occurs in nature, and for purposes of the book, each of the photos also had to capture something that was native to Minnesota.

Photographer Joe Rossi

Rossi found himself looking at everything from the patterns on butterfly and moth wings to tree bark, hoar frost and spider webs.  “One of the cool things was, coming across things that you wouldn’t normally have seen, or noticed,” Rossi said.

Though not all of the photos he took were usable for the alphabet project, “they still made really nice pictures,” he added.

There were also some drawbacks to the assignment, however — such as the night he was caught out in a mosquito-infested area without any repellent on, and also encountered some poison ivy.  “That’s a night I’ll never forget,” Rossi said. “I was pretty miserable for about a week.”

Rossi also found himself coming back to some of the same subjects more than once, photographing plants, insects and other living creatures at different aspects of their development.

In addition, he said, the change of seasons provides some unique photographic opportunities — the same lake looks very different in summertime than it does during the winter, covered in ice.

Sometimes, the same weather conditions that caused problems with shooting one day would assist him the next, Rossi added, showing two images of the same plant — one with branches drooping, the other, on a windy day, with the branches sticking straight out to form a perfect letter “E.”

“A lot of stuff is trial and error” when it comes to photography, he admitted.  Though he used a macro lens for some of the close-up images used in the book, Rossi said, “for a lot of them, a point and shoot (camera) would have worked too.”

Though Rossi often spent a lot of time on a single subject, trying to capture just the right image, there were other times when he didn’t know what he had until he got back to his studio and looked at the full-size images.  “Every once in a while, you get surprised,” he said, noting that one of those surprises occurred when he looked at a single image of a pelican that happened to open its beak just as he snapped the photo — forming a perfect letter J.  Another time, he found himself playing a “cat and mouse” game with a rabbit near his Bemidji home, trying to entice the animal to put up its ears and form just the right image for a perfect letter V.

“Sometimes you have to take four or five runs at (the same subject) before you get something you want,” he said.  One important rule for capturing just the right image is to “Be prepared,” he said — in other words, always have your camera with you.  Another is to take photos during different seasons.  “I basically enjoy going out at all different times of the year,” Rossi said.

But when taking photos during times of extreme cold or heat, he added, one important rule to remember is to make sure your camera is acclimated to the conditions before you start shooting, so the lens doesn’t freeze or fog over.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

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