The sheer amount of work that goes into publishing a book, from the challenges that arise during research to the technicalities behind photography, is often overlooked. This is especially evident for books about cannabis and cannabis culture. Higher: The Lore, Legends, and Legacy of Cannabis, written by Dan Michaels and featuring photography by Erik Christiansen aka Erik Nugshots, was recently released by Ten Speed Press. The book explores the legends, legacy, and lore of cannabis, including 100 portraits of the most popular strains out there, specifically 50 classic strains and 50 modern strains. It also provides information on lineage, taste, the ranges of THC content, and common effects, while including the hijinks and historical milestones that shaped the world of cannabis.
The project is nothing new for the duo: Christiansen and Michaels have worked together on several books in the past including Green: A Marijuana Journal, Green: A Pocket Guide to Pot, and Green: A Field Guide to Marijuana. With several cannabis books under their belts, they’ve learned a thing or two when it comes to what works and what doesn’t in a cannabis book.
Higher traces the evolution of modern cannabis, going back to the Hippie Trail of Central Asia up to the Emerald Triangle in California. It also provides a historical timeline from prohibition days, including the Marihuana Tax Act, the War on Drugs, medical cannabis, and the rise of availability for adults.
On the scientific side, the book explores plant anatomy, breeding of wild landraces, the first domesticated cannabis crops, and consumption. Importantly, it covers the world’s most influential cannabis strains ever created. We’ve showcased the original building blocks of cannabis, the landrace cultivars, within this spread.
Narrowing down the list of strains was by far the hardest part of the process, Michaels said. Part of the problem was that choosing which strains are top is based on objective experiences.
“We started with the varieties that we chose from experience, knowing what people were smoking at the time and what I thought were really important strains—whether for historical value, or genetics value, or a combination of both,” Michaels said.
It’s one thing to have a particular strain in mind, and another to verify that information and have a current, accessible source for the photography.
“The challenge was finding a particular variety and making sure it was authentic, making sure it came from the right place,” Michaels, who is also the founder of Sinsemedia, said. “The other challenge was that I didn’t want to exclude some varieties, especially in the newer ones that, you know, kind of are sort of important now. But again, at the same time, there are ones that we wanted to include that we couldn’t find and so we didn’t get them all. We probably could write about another 100 strains. But I think I’d say we got probably 90% of the ones we really wanted to include in there.”
Narrowing Down Content & Strains
Gathering information and photography was inevitably impacted by outside factors, often out of their control.
“Availability of the particular strains, finding a good grower, being able to trace the genetics back to the breeder, all those things are really important to make sure we were actually providing all the right information for the strain,” Michaels said.
Michaels explained that the primer section is a combination of things, partly an extension of the information he put together years ago in the Green books, with lots of updates, given the nearly 10-year span after 2014, when his first book on cannabis was published.
“I also wanted to include a lot of the lore element of cannabis, which would be some history, some evolution, you know, where it came from, how it got to where it is today, things of that nature, which I thought were important to sort of document,” he said.
He maintains that he didn’t set out to make a history book; instead, Higher includes some major milestones in the history of the plant, but he understands that you can’t please everyone.
“No matter what you put down, you’re always gonna have somebody telling you, ‘You are wrong,’ or that ‘You missed a particular detail,’” Michael said. “So I tried to make a point to not be general, but at least, if I knew it was a fact, I presented it as a fact. If it’s sort of still sort of a debatable thing in the industry—which a lot of things still are—I tried to present it that way.”
Sticking to the facts also meant telling the truth about THC, not the inflated numbers you might see on the label in a dispensary. He explained that when you look at a THC percentage of a product on a dispensary menu, it’s going to give you an idea of the THC range but not a precise number as so many other factors can impact a batch.
“People are drawn to the THC, it’s almost like people are drawn to alcohol content,” Michaels said. “We consciously made an effort to instead of including a number I tried to do a range of THC just because that’s the right way to do it. Because I mean, you can grow a particular variety, and you’re not going to get consistent THC, you know, to the decimal point every time. So consciously, I made a point to include a range.”
Christiansen explained the challenges surrounding intellectual property and protecting his work. He remembers a specific incident in 2011—actually the first time any cannabis publication published one of his shots of the plant, using it in one of their ads. Protecting his work is a bit more straightforward nowadays.
“It’s a little easier to protect my work today,” he said. “We have tools that can search the internet and find photos that have been posted on websites and stuff. And back in the day, I was running a blog where I was posting my photos so they were out there in higher resolution so people could easily just swipe them.”
Appreciating Stack Photography
Getting the richness of colors and detail in the photos requires some background knowledge. The photography Christiansen delivers is a result of a layering process that enables him to focus on all parts of the plant.
“Basically, with photography, the closer you get, the less it is in focus,” Christiansen said. “So focus stacking is basically a way to kind of overcome that problem. You basically take a picture, and then move the camera or the subject forward until what’s in focus has moved out of focus. And you capture the next slab of focus. And then you repeat that process all the way through the subject until you’ve captured everything that you want in focus in your final picture. And then there’s computer software that you put all those pictures in, it detects the focus areas in each photo, and then combines them together.”
Self-taught in the field of photography, Christiansen is a pioneer of focus-stacked photography, particularly cannabis flower. His hyper-detailed macrophotography has been featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and you can also find his work in Time magazine, Slate, NPR, and Mashable.
Several factors are needed in order to capture the true beauty of cannabis flower. At his Nugshots online store, Christiansen sells prints, calendars, and other products featuring his brilliant captures of the cannabis plant.
Christiansen said he needs at bare minimum a couple of things in order to capture the sparkle of the trichomes best.
“First of all, the grow needs to have been not touched. That’s the biggest thing. If I get to a plant and the grower squeezed it to check the terpenes, you’re going to see those popped to trichomes in the picture. So first and foremost, it needs to be an untouched sample. And then beyond that, just good lighting, good lens, and then the focus stacking is really what brings out that depth and really makes it pop.”
Print is really where Christiansen’s work can be seen best, Michaels said, adding that it’s only when the photography reaches that resolution can it be fully appreciated.
“When you see Erik’s stuff online, like on a screen, I don’t think it really shines like it does when it’s in print,” Michaels said. “Because, you know, you can see things on screen and you could kind of cheat things in terms of resolution quality. When Eric’s imagery is printed, and especially in this new book, I think people are going to appreciate it way more.”
This article was originally published in the May 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.