Fueled by a sense of adventure, Matthew Cicanese partnered his love for the outdoors and environmental studies degree with a passion for art.
You might find Matthew Cicanese laying on his back, in the woods, inspecting a decomposing log covered with moss and lichen. His subject clearly laid out before him, he gets to work documenting the intricate filaments of the fungi with his camera. He might also find an ant feasting on a fly, a beetle perusing the wood, or a spider ready to pounce on prey.
Matthew, a 2011 initiate of the Florida Southern Circle, photographer, artist, and former National Geographic Young Explorer approaches the entire forest, but especially these small organisms, with a mix of curiosity, excitement, and awe. “Sometimes hikers will see me there, on the ground, and wonder what I’m doing,” he said with a laugh. “But, I love the sense of discovery when you flip over a rock.”
With millions of species to elect as ones’ focus—the majestic species of the African plains, the cute and the cuddly category of panda bears and seals, the downright bizarre creatures found on social media like the star-nose mole—his concentration on insects and primarily lichen, a mere fungus, begs the obvious question, why lichen?
As with most of our career choices, the answer involves a few windy paths that stem from something close to our hearts. One is that Cicanese thinks of lichen as the forest’s underdog, a position he found himself in early in life. He contracted penicillin-resistant meningitis as a baby and nearly died before he reached his first birthday. He lost all of the motor skills he had learned up to that point, and his doctors expected that if he survived, he would live with severe disabilities for the rest of his life. Luckily Cicanese surpassed all expectations and survived his illness with limited damage. His recovery and therapy required large hearing aids, bi-focal glasses, and an eye patch to strengthen his weak eye throughout childhood. He also received a cochlear implant, an electronic device that acts as an inner ear. He said he was determined “to do everything the other kids did,” so he played soccer, learned karate, and was a Boy Scout.
But what captured his focus was his Florida backyard and a two-megapixel point and shoot camera that his uncle gave him when he turned 14. He spent most of his childhood playing outside, climbing trees, and catching bugs and snakes with his siblings. The slight deprivation in sight and hearing actually made his senses sharper. With the camera he could begin to capture his life—his unique way of experiencing the world. He says, “[the camera] was my missing link. It allowed me to connect with the world in new ways.”
That connection to the world centered around nature. There, he discovered species large and small, but what he came to love most are the surprises—the often overlooked plants and tiny creatures—that Cicanese believes “are as interesting as pictures of open fields that everyone loves.”
Though Cicanese will invoke the magic of these small plants, he’s also inspired by their real and true purpose. While plants are often overlooked, they are also the building blocks of the entire ecosystem. Cryptograms, the category of seedless vascular plants including moss and lichen, consume dead matter and absorb heavy metals to create rich soil, which creates the vast plant life that supports the entire ecosystem.
“My curiosity about nature as a kid drove me to learn about what I was experience and seeing,” he said. Cicanese majored in environmental studies at Florida Southern College. There, his photography took a backseat to more traditional media studies and an environmental education, followed by field internships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, and then with Duke University’s Lichen Laboratory.
It was during this project documenting lichen that connected Cicanese back with his photography and to the idea of using his camera as an instrument to give people access to another world—one that is quite literally right under their feet.
His “photographic obsession” as he calls it, and his unique perspective, landed him a spot in Duke University’s MFA program in experimental and documentary arts. The program gave him technical instruction but also gave him the freedom to make whichever type of art he wanted.
While his peers were focused on art careers, Cicanese set his sights on National Geographic. “My friends told me to quit dreaming of Nat Geo and worry about getting on the walls of the gallery. But that wasn’t my goal.”
While studying for his masters, he became an intern for National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative – and his foot was officially in the door. In 2015, National Geographic awarded him a grant to document the biodiversity of lichen species and culture surrounding lichen in Iceland. Their Young Explorer program provides one-time grants of up to $5,000 for people under 25 leading the intersection of conservation and media. Last summer, as part of that program, he partnered with the camera company Cannon and took off for Iceland.
Cicanese spent three weeks traveling 1,500 miles around the country documenting lichen and the sites. “When most people think of Iceland, they think of sweeping landscapes, dazzling waterfalls, and cultures with history as old as the Vikings. When I think of Iceland, I think of those things too; what excites me more are the hundreds of species that are always in sight just not in focus.”
This year, Cicanese is gearing up for more international travel. He spent the month of May in Sri Lanka volunteering on a lichenologist’s National Geographic Grant project to tell her story and document lichens across Sri Lanka’s ecosystems. This summer, he travels to British Colombia to help document three species of moss. His bryologist colleagues consider these species at risk, though they are not officially listed as threatened or endangered species—a fact they hope to change.
Cicanese gets back to cryptograms with two additional trips—a visual photographic survey of the species in the Choco Rainforest in Ecuador and in the Cocobolo Nature Reserve in Panama.
In his spare time, Cicanese continues to spearhead the idea of “mapping the microcosm” as he calls it. He seeks to capture small ecological microbiomes (like a log) using gigapixel imagery. He takes a series of high resolution images in a grid pattern, stiches them together, and presents an interactive image of a small area. For example, a recent macro image of a log appears to simply be a log covered with lichen. Yet, with this transformative photography, the viewer is able to zoom in to inspect a pair of beetles, an earth worm burrowing into the log, an inchworm curled into moss, and a handful of other insects. Or, you can also zoom in to see the intricate details of the mosses, fungi, or fibers of a leaf.
Cicanese continues to follow his sense of discovery and brings us along with him to the forest floors across the world. Describing his experience in Iceland gives us a sense of why we too begin to care about lichen. He writes, “Each photograph I take has a different journey as its backstory and all are rich with sensory experiences that lead up to the singular moment of the photograph.”