From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Retro-future Naturalist Jeremiah Tolbert

Dr. RoundbottomClockpunk.com, the home of Dr. Julius T. Roundbottom, is an alternate universe blog of a naturalist and “photonic capture” expert written by Jeremiah Tolbert. The web-based fiction project combines photography, Photoshop, and flash fiction into a fun and ever-evolving Steampunk narrative. I asked Jeremiah to give me a little peek behind the scenes of Dr. Roundbottom’s world.


K. Tempest Bradford: Did the initial inspiration for Dr. Roundbottom start with the photography or with the story?

Jeremiah Tolbert: The work started specifically in photography. I had an opportunity after a week of rain to go out and take some pictures of mushrooms. I started playing with some of the images in post, and ended up creating my most popular photograph, the eyeball mushroom. From there, I started writing flash fiction around the photography, and Dr. Roundbottom was born.

Tempest: How does a typical Roundbottom image come about?

Jeremiah: I’m pretty strongly limited by my own surroundings and what I have the capacity to photograph myself. Some of them come from experiments in photographic techniques that I want to try out, and some of them come from specific images that I conceive and then try and photograph. Then some just come about as happy discoveries of odd things as I explore my surroundings with camera in hand.

For instance, there are not a lot of people in the Roundbottom photographs at this point because of my limited budget and access to period costumes. Luckily, I have leads on some costuming resources, so that will change with time as I do more storylines for the project. Also, my wife is hard at work sewing a more formal Roundbottom costume for myself, and a costume for a female character that’s part of the narrative.

Tempest: Of the photonic captures up on the site, what is your favorite?

Jeremiah: I like the Common Maned Sprite. It was an effort to take a well-shot, but somewhat boring, photograph and give it an element of the fantastic. It drew from a lot of photographs in my collection, shot over the past several years.

Common Maned Sprite
One of the Sources

Tempest: That’s an awesome one. I especially like the little face peeking out. It looks kind of like a monkey.

Jeremiah: Yeah, that’s one thing that I really want to do with my creatures. I’m working with some common, overused concepts like faeries, but I want to make them much more animalistic, and less magical. In Roundbottom’s world, faeries are just another type of animal. Very strange ones, but they’re animals. Many of them have insect traits, but that won’t always be the case. Creating them is the most technically difficult part of the project, and something that I hope to improve upon with time.

Tempest: Do you envision having charts with the genus, order and such on them someday?

Jeremiah: Roundbottom’s more interested in their ecological roles and interactions, but I could see him working out some of the family tree to pass away a rainy afternoon.

Tempest: I’m particularly partial to A Fire Fairy Tree At Dusk. It’s sort of obvious what’s really going on, but that doesn’t make it any less magical-feeling when you pair it with the story.

Fire Fairy Tree

Jeremiah: That’s one of my more experimental images. Given my limited resources and time, I am trying to take images that might not appear to be so magical on the surface, and give them more of a fantastic bent when combined with the fiction — to varying degrees of success.

I plan to experiment more in the future with building props, and possibly doing some 3D modeling and rendering for some of the things I would like to create.

Tempest: What kind of camera do you use? And do you do photo manipulation solely in Photoshop?

Jeremiah: I shoot with a digital Olympus camera. Not a popular manufacturer these days, but I got my start with them. I find them good, lightweight cameras. Photoshop is where I do all of my manipulation.

Tempest: Do you have a digital SLR? I always assume, because your photos are so beautiful, that they have to come from an SLR.

Jeremiah: Yes, it is an SLR, but that doesn’t really matter. I could make the images with any camera that is capable of taking macro photos. A good understanding of depth of field and quality of light goes a long way towards improving a photograph.

Most of my “macro” images are taken with a cheap screw-on kit on a 35mm lens. It was only after I started working on the Roundbottom project that I was able to buy a true macro lens that can take really close, stunning images. That’s the thing that makes having an SLR really great.

But many point-and-shoot cameras these days can take great photos. I think most people really start pushing their understanding of photography when they buy an SLR, and that’s why there is a perception that they’re better cameras.

Clockwork LadybugHidden Beetle

Tempest: How did the project end up with the Steampunk sensibility?

Jeremiah: The Steampunk element came in as I developed the voice of the character, and realized that I wanted to write a scientist who was much more Victorian in character.

I’ve always been fascinated with biology. For me, the height of biological science was the naturalist phase, when most of the work was just gathering and documenting specimens.

Tempest: Naturalists were sort of adventurers, weren’t they? Going into (for them) exotic parts of the world and finding new flora and fauna.

Jeremiah: They were, but a lot of naturalists did work in their own back yards. Darwin, I think, inspired a lot of interest in the natural sciences, and so a lot of amateur naturalists were born from the publication of his work. Dr. Roundbottom is a bit more of a “back yard” naturalist, although his back yard is a thousand acre wild park filled with bizarre faeries and mechanical insects.

Tempest: Were you a fan of Steampunk to begin with or did you get more into it as you discovered the Victorian voice coming out?

Jeremiah: I’ve long been a fan of Steampunk and other retro-futuristic SF genres. Its recent explosion in popularity definitely inspired me to incorporate the Steampunk/Clockpunk elements into the project. The LiveJournal group “steamfashion” is full of amazing work done by craftspeople and enthusiasts. It’s an aesthetic that I find really pleasing.

I think most modern design has a very sparse, clean look. Austere, I guess you could say. Steampunk is a reaction to the iPod, to the smooth white surfaces of everything, and a reaction to mass-manufacturing. Steampunk objects are generally unique, hand-crafted, made from natural materials and metals. They’re raw, and generally have a lot of fiddly bits.

Plus, everyone looks 100% cooler when they put on brass goggles.

Tempest: I’m a little wary of literary movements that leap from the page and become aesthetic movements. Maybe it’s more my distrust of trend.

Jeremiah: I think the literary trend and the aesthetic movement are only tangentially related. And it’s a little easier for me to tolerate because the fashion is essentially a Victorian update. Fashion has always been somewhat cyclical.

The move towards a Victorian look is a move away from mass-manufacturing and more towards individualism. Steampunkers seem to be bored with the way everything looks the same, and really take pride in creating a unique look or persona. A lot of it is born from the spirit of cosplay, but most of the work is more original than just mimicking a favorite character.

Tempest: Which bleeds into other areas like technology — the Steampunk laptops, monitors, keyboards, etc.

Jeremiah: Right. So it’s not just about fashion.

Browncap Village

Browncap Forest

Tempest: Where do you see the project going in the future? Since you’re looking to bring in more characters, I assume you’re thinking of plot arcs?

Jeremiah: I’ve completed one episodic arc which establishes new characters and more background to the story. It’ll run over the next six weeks. After that, I will fill in one-offs here and there, because I have a hard time taking much photography in the winter; I’m much more inspired in the spring and summer, when things are green and alive.

Eventually, I would like to see the project evolve into a full-fledged book, heavily illustrated with photography, maybe a 40,000 word novel. Maybe a gallery show.

But primarily, it’s a free, web-based project, from which I sell prints of the “photonic captures”.

Tempest: Did you always envision it as a novel? I know you’re often thinking of new models for fiction that aren’t standard/straightforward storytelling.

Jeremiah: No, the novel is mostly just an idea for something down the road, and was an idea that I’ve batted around. There’s been a lot of work done by others in the “blog as a story” model of writing, and even one author that I know of who has done something similar, combining photographs and text. So it did grow out of a desire to see what I could do working in that vein. It’s very open to feedback and communication from others.

One recent entry is a photograph sent in by a reader, along with a note. I used that email and image and riffed off of it for a piece. I’d like to do more of that in the future. Bringing in the audience on the story.


Visit Clockpunk.com to read about the further adventures of Dr. Roundbottom and Jeremiah’s Image Kind gallery to purchase prints of his work.

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