26 April 2024

How an obsession with fungi put a NSW photographer and a filmmaker on the world stage

| Marion Williams
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Catherine Marciniak and StephenAxford. Picture: Supplied.

Catherine Marciniak and Stephen Axford share an obsession with fungi. Photo: Supplied.

Stephen Axford’s obsession with photographing fungi started a ripple that has turned into a wave sweeping the world.

He and his partner Catherine Marciniak’s film Fungi: The Web of Life, which Catherine co-wrote, is an IMAX 3D movie that screened in London in February. Another one, Follow the Rain, will screen five times on the Far South Coast as part of the Fungi Feastival that runs from 21 June to 21 July.

A keen bushwalker, Stephen started noticing mushrooms while out trekking about. After spotting an attractive purple one, he became fascinated with photographing them.

“Then I met Catherine and she tended to stoke my obsession,” he says.

As a journalist working with the ABC on community stories about water, Catherine approached Stephen. Their 2011 audio slide that combined Stephen’s photos with him talking featured in the ABC project.

“It was the beginning of our love of working together,” Catherine says. “Romantic love quickly blossomed, and we have had such amazing adventures together because of our love of fungi.”

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Thirteen years ago, they made their first three-minute film together about a frosty blue mushroom Stephen discovered. They now know it is only found in Australia, New Caledonia and Lord Howe Island.

Then in 2014, This is Colossal, a blog followed by many influential people, asked to feature some of Stephen’s photos.

“From that I started to get requests from around the world for photos. I thought it would be a bit of income for a few months but then the BBC contacted me asking about luminous fungi,” Stephen says.

When he mentioned he had started doing time-lapse photography, the BBC immediately sent a producer from England to Stephen’s property for the BBC’s Planet Earth 2, the biggest nature documentary since Planet Earth 1 ten years earlier. The BBC ended up using far more than images of luminous fungi.

“We were chuffed because Australian subtropical fungi featured in this documentary with David Attenborough’s voice,” Catherine says.

For some 14 years StephenAxford has been obsessed by fungi.

For some 14 years, Stephen Axford has been obsessed with fungi. Photo: Peter Derrett.

Catherine says the global interest in their films shows a “myco-awakening”, an interest in all things fungi. On the land there are plants ranging from mosses to trees, animals from insects to elephants and fungi which are far less visible. Yet fungi are just as important, Stephen says.

“If you remove any one of these three kingdoms, life would collapse.”

Catherine says the growing awareness of fungi’s importance is due to several factors.

“Citizen scientists like Stephen are uploading thousands of images and information onto the internet.”

Then there are psilocybin mushrooms. There are clinical trials into how they can help with trauma and mental health.

“They are putting tracers on the brain to understand how psilocybin mushrooms work on depression,” Stephen says.

Add in films like Fantastic Fungi, which have a “huge following” and Dr Merlin Sheldrake’s bestselling book Entangled Life, and incredible momentum has been built.

“We got on this little ripple with our own obsession 14 years ago and now we are on this wave. It has taken us to Nepal, China, India, Chile and Sri Lanka and through that we have met very inspiring conservationists,” Catherine says.

That has led them to learn about the science of fungi. For example, Stephen says an enzyme in fungi spores impacts how much rain falls over the land.

“There is more rain over the Amazon than the ocean. So, by taking away the forests where the fungi are, you are taking away the rain.”

Catherine says they learn something new about fungi every day.

“That thrill of discovery, both in the forest and in the science, keeps us passionate.”

An example of Stephen Axford’s photography. Photo:Stephen Axford.

An example of Stephen Axford’s stunning photography. Photo: Stephen Axford.

That passion includes educating the world on the importance of fungi and conserving them.

Conservatively, it is thought there are four to five million fungi species, of which only 150,000 have been documented.

“You can’t conserve it if you don’t know what is there,” Catherine says.

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Protecting forests is part of that.

“Without forests, there would be no fungi, and without fungi, there would be no forests and therefore no animals,” Stephen says.

Their 76-minute film Follow the Rain crams in as much as possible of 12 years of collecting time-lapse images and what they have learnt. Stephen says only a fraction is known about fungi.

“It is a new frontier of science, and it is right under our feet, a kingdom hidden in plain sight.”

The Fungi Feastival features fun activities from Batemans Bay to Eden and runs from 21 June to 21 July. More details are available here.

Original Article published by Marion Williams on About Regional.

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