Showing Mushrooms' True Colors

Photographer Taylor Lockwood captures the beauty of fungi by illuminating them with a full spectrum flash to bring out the colors that nature's shade often hides. These photos are featured in his self-published book "Chasing the Rain," which is available at
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007; Page A08

Taylor Lockwood never paid much attention to mushrooms. But when he moved from Los Angeles to the redwood-carpeted northern California community of Mendocino during the warm, wet winter of 1984, he found himself surrounded by them. Thus began an unabashedly obsessive love affair between the photographer and one of nature's strangest and most diverse life forms.

Mushrooms are fungi, a kingdom apart from plants, and they are underappreciated in our "fungiphobic" culture, Taylor says. That's a situation he aims to rectify.

Many people focus on the grim reality that mushrooms are all about rot and decay, but Taylor urges people to take "a less humanocentric view" and appreciate them as the "ultimate recyclers."

"In the circle of things, they are turning one thing into something else that is food or dessert for an insect or a plant," he says -- a perfect, mulchy symbol of renewal as we prepare for the New Year.

But most underappreciated, he says, is that many mushrooms are extremely, even ridiculously, pretty. They are polka-dot and striped, smooth as skin and jagged as the moon. They are red, green, orange, yellow and even blue.

As Taylor started shooting their portraits, he says, he had an epiphany: "Mushrooms needed me to tell the world how beautiful they are."

He has tackled that mission through slide shows at community centers and scientific meetings; books of his photos, including his latest, the self-published "Chasing the Rain" (2007), from which these images are taken; and educational DVDs including 60-second spots that he produced called "Mushroom Minutes."

Taylor has traversed the world in search of ever-more-beautiful mushrooms, making friends along the way with lay mushroomers and professional mycologists in a process he calls "mushroom diplomacy."

Over time he has perfected ways of illuminating the "shrooms" with full-spectrum flash units to bring out the colors that do not show up well in nature, as mushrooms tend to grow in the shade of green canopies, where reds and yellows get filtered out.

True to his mission of helping mushrooms look their best, he does not surprise his subjects.

"I will spend half an hour sometimes with a blade of grass getting insects off the gills, or using a pine needle to flick the dirt off," he says. "I spend a lot of time making sure they are ready."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company