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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick on the central coast of California. And this is a photo-op alert. Our feature about photographers is back and we remind you that there is a web component, and at npr.org click on the program button at the top, choose DAY TO DAY and do you see what I do. You do.

One of the great photographers of our time has just debuted a project many years in the making: a multimedia composition with a score by Philip Glass.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Behold the humble form of the horseshoe crab, a mound of dark shell the size of a dinner plate, a tail like a stick to identify the back end. Even a naturalist might call this dubious beauty, but on a beach in New Jersey seven years ago photographer Frans Lanting thought about how biologically ancient these creatures are - at least 300 million years - and how it is possible to see in them the past and the present.

Mr. FRANS LANTING (Photographer): Life is a vision of the past, it's a celebration of the present, and it's a call to action to make sure there is a future for all of us.

CHADWICK: That moment led to this work and its first performance before an audience, Saturday night at the Cabrillo Festival of New Music in Santa Cruz, California, which is where Frans Lanting lives.

Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the performance, the orchestra was warming up.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Musical Director, Cabrillo Festival): Frans came to me and said he had this idea for trying to put together some of his images with music of some kind and...

CHADWICK: Marin Alsop is the musical director for the Cabrillo Festival. She saw Frans's images, this collection - it's called Life a Journey Through Time - and she thought she knew who would be just the right composer.

Ms. ALSOP: Philip Glass's music immediately came to mind because of the cellular development of the music, which sort of reflects Frans's imagery. And Frans said, oh, that would be amazing if we could get Philip Glass. So, I called him up and we had a meeting in New York and everyone seemed to really be on the same page about the project. And so that's how it started.

Mr. PHILIP GLASS (Composer): I liked the images, I thought they were beautiful, but I really didn't know what we would end up with.

CHADWICK: Philip Glass, who came out from New York for the debut.

Mr. GLASS: Let's say it's a poetic interpretation of the origins of life. I mean, that's a very big subject, but when we say poetic that means we can take a lot of angles on it. We don't have to tell a completely scientific story. We don't have to tell a completely accurate story. We can tell - it's very impressionistic in one way and at the same time it's a kind of self-portrait, isn't it. Of a very - it's a very big canvas.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: That's what you hear. This is what you see: Frans Lanting's masterful wide-angle landscapes and then details of tiny creatures called diatoms, almost mathematical in their perfect symmetry, like progenitors of our digital age. And then volcanoes and rivers of molten rock at night, reds and yellows against black. And ferns and lizards in the jaws of a tiny tree shrew and a cheetah bounding in pursuit, and the veins of a human hand.

The colors are schemes of gray, rock and sky lit by a pale moon hovering at the horizon. Or the blues of the ocean. Or an Alaskan forest brilliant in the reds and yellows of autumn.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: These images play across an enormous screen, nearly 50 feet that hangs above the orchestra. The still pictures move here, sliding in and out, fading from one to another, rising to hold the screen for a moment and then off to reveal another in a kind of visual narrative about life and time, a long time, hundreds of millions of years.

The morning after the debut, in the garden behind his home, Frans Lanting is recalling that encounter with horseshoe crabs where this began years ago.

Mr. FRANS LANTING (Wildlife Photographer): It was an epiphany. I was standing on the beach in Delaware Bay one evening and I saw these horseshoe crabs crawl out. It's something they've been doing for hundreds of millions of years, and I suddenly thought, my gosh, if I could see this and capture this in New Jersey, what could I find in South Africa and in Brazil and in Australia if I start looking for the past in the present?

And if you look at nature through the perspective of time, everything changes. Suddenly things that appear humble, spiders and club mosses and snails, turn out to be these heroic entities. And then of course you ultimately end up with things like stramatolites that only a few specialized scientists know about, and it turns out that they fundamentally changed the world, and without them we wouldn't be here today.

CHADWICK: I recall running into you at National Geographic, and you were telling me about these stramatolites and how interesting they are and how exciting they are, and how excited you were, and I remember thinking at the time, what the heck is a stramatolite, and how is Frans going to make this important to people?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANTING: Indeed. Stramatolites are structures created by cyanobacteria. Think of them as the first primitive reefs that were created by life forms on the planet. They evolved about 3.5 billion years ago, and for about 2 billion years, these cyanobacteria - those are the living components of the stramatolites - exhaled so much oxygen into the atmosphere that they changed the world.

Before these stramatolites existed, there was virtually no free oxygen. Two billion years later there was so much oxygen in the atmosphere that it enabled the evolution of all complex life that followed, including us. The oxygen we breathe every moment of our lives was exhaled originally by cyanobacteria.

CHADWICK: Frans, what now? You've debuted this work. What do you want to happen with it?

Mr. LANTING: The project contains an important message. It's not just about the past, it ends in a look at the present, but in a more holistic way.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LANTING: We embrace the notion of Gaia, that revolutionary idea that was articulated by James Lovelock in the 1970s. Lovelock, too, looked at stramatolites and realized that the difference between Earth and other planets in our solar system is the atmosphere. He postulated that the atmosphere of Earth is a non-living extensive of the collective force of life, and I believe that that is an important message. I think we're on the cusp of a new vision of nature. We're globalizing our economies, we're globalizing our culture. I think we need to look at a more global view of nature if we want to have a chance to stabilize our own influence on the planet.

CHADWICK: Photographer and now multimedia storyteller Frans Lanting.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Frans Lanting's multimedia project has a website, lifethroughtime.com. We have a link at npr.org. There's a book coming in the fall, a traveling exhibition. There's another full orchestral performance already scheduled in Baltimore and Washington in February. The work is called Life: A Journey Through Time, originally conceived by Frans Lanting and his partner, Chris Eckstrom, with music by Philip Glass. It was performed at the Cabrillo Music Festival under the direction of Marin Alsop.

(Soundbite of music)

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