Carnivorous plants are a seductive subject for Matthew M. Kaelin, Fine Arts ’01, Textile/Surface Design ’99

These are plants with a dark beauty—fleshy and curvaceous, with spines that snag, mouths that gape. When an unsuspecting insect alights, it’s a horror show in miniature: the plant turns deadly, trapping and slowly digesting its tiny prey. No wonder Matthew M. Kaelin ’01, a carnivorous-plant aficionado, calls them “sinister.” But dramatic descriptions aside, they’re really just plants that evolved in harsh environments and developed an unusual means of getting nutrients—a survival strategy that evokes both fascination and revulsion.

Ravenous patience, September 30, 2012
Dionaea muscipula (Venus flytrap) is native to the sandy and peaty soils of bogs and wet savannas only in North and South Carolina. Its conservation status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is Vulnerable.

Kaelin has adored these plants since he first saw them in the 1986 PBS documentary Death Trap. Now he’s a serious student of carnivorous plants (he has named two Nepenthes cultivars) and gives lectures to promote conservation. He grows many varieties at home on Long Island under artificial light, and meticulously photographs them in gorgeous close-up. The result of this near-obsession is a book, The Sinister Beauty of Carnivorous Plants, published by Schiffer in 2016.

Scourge across the Plains of Hades, November 9, 2013
Nepenthes ‘H.R. Giger’ is a cultivar registered by Kaelin in 2015. It is an artificial hybrid of two tropical pitcher plant species, Nepenthes lowii, endemic to Borneo, and Nepenthes spectabilis, endemic to the Indonesian provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh.

Kaelin’s photos are not botanical studies that document plant structures; they are art, intended to generate a feeling in the viewer. He likes to give them ominous titles like “One Thousand Eyes Watching” and “Scourge across the Plains of Hades.” His theme, tackled by generations of artists, is the interplay of sex and death: “It’s the allure of the plant juxtaposed with predation,” he says. In the photos, the strong play of light and dark lends depth, intensity, and a touch of mystery: “You’re a visitor to an alien world.”

One Thousand Eyes Watching, October 26, 2010
Drosera capensis (cape sundew) occurs naturally on the southwestern Cape of South Africa in marshes, along streams, and in permanent seeps or damp areas of fynbos habitat. It is not considered threatened in its remote natural habitat.

Torches of Insanity Illuminate Us All, September 17, 2011
Sarracenia leucophylla (white pitcher plant) inhabits moist and low-nutrient longleaf pine savannas along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Due to wide-scale destruction of its habitat, and over-collection for commercial sales, its conservation status is Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.