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This Hudson Valley photographer takes mesmerizing pictures of fireflies every summer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Fireflies are synonymous with summer in many parts of the country, but photographing them can be a real challenge. One man has spent almost a decade perfecting a process that produces glowing, otherworldly landscapes. And reporter Lara Pellegrinelli joined him in New York's Hudson Valley.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI, BYLINE: Photographer Pete Mauney heads out for work each night, flashlight in hand, wearing highway safety gear. His oversized orange T-shirt and its strip of reflectors match the traffic cones piled in the trunk of his car.

PETE MAUNEY: Almost everybody thinks I'm a surveyor except state troopers.

PELLEGRINELLI: During the summer months, from dusk until the moon rises, he finds his subjects along quiet stretches of farm stand highway, in abandoned fields and hidden pockets of woods and the grassy tracks underneath power lines within a 30-mile radius of his home in Tivoli, N.Y.

MAUNEY: I never get tired of it.

PELLEGRINELLI: Mauney photographs fireflies - that is, any night the temperature stays above 60 degrees and there isn't a downpour.

MAUNEY: I never get tired of the challenge and of the puzzle of trying to construct the images and trying to construct a good image because it's not enough for me to have the bugs do the heavy lifting.

PELLEGRINELLI: A good image starts with location.

MAUNEY: You see them? This has a lot more than where we were before.

PELLEGRINELLI: Working by starlight, Mauney sets his camera on a tripod. He points it towards a line of trees with an electrical tower behind it. It turns out that the house behind us is causing a small problem.

MAUNEY: Except for how incredibly bright that one little, tiny porch light is.

PELLEGRINELLI: From the house with the porch light, a man emerges, dragged by an overzealous goldendoodle.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MAUNEY: How you doing?

PELLEGRINELLI: Mauney tells him that his property's an off-the-grid hub of activity. It might not look like anything special, but it's an important spot to document species increasingly affected by light pollution, pesticides and habitat destruction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Turn that off?

MAUNEY: Turn off the porch light?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. Yeah.

PELLEGRINELLI: Then he gets the guy to turn out the porch light. It's now very dark, but I can see thousands and thousands of dancing lights in short bursts and more sustained flashes, making patterns that hover and float. Mauney will leave his camera and position for up to five hours, collecting as many as 800 timed exposures. He compiles these in Photoshop layer by layer, creating single images that are at once wildly, chaotically real and utterly fantastic.

MAUNEY: The bioluminescent insects are a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of all the other insects that are out there. So they're kind of giving us a little bit of an indication through the photographs of what's there, which is a lot that we don't see.

PELLEGRINELLI: To help others see what they might be missing, Mauney's collecting information for a project at the BioFrontiers Institute of the University of Colorado Boulder. There, scientists are creating the first dictionary to match firefly species with their distinctive flash patterns.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIREFLIES")

OWL CITY: (Singing) You would not believe your eyes if 10 million fireflies lit up... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.