January 18, 2013
Katrina van Grouw’s new book The Unfeathered Bird is a work of passion. A former curator in the ornithological division of London’s Natural History Museum, the fine artist, based in Buckinghamshire, England, has used her experience in ornithology and taxidermy to draw, over the course of her career, 385 beautiful illustrations of birds—all, as the book’s title suggests, without their feathers. Her work shows the skeletal and muscular systems of 200 different species, from ostriches to hummingbirds, parrots to penguins, in life-like poses.
Collage of Arts and Sciences interviewed van Grouw by email.
When did you draw your very first bird illustration for this book?
Twenty five years ago! But it was a couple more years before the idea for the book became a burning ambition. I was an undergraduate fine art student with a passion for natural history, and I wanted to produce a set of anatomical drawings as background research for my images of living birds. I found a freshly dead mallard washed up on the beach and began stripping off each layer of muscle, before boiling up and reassembling the skeleton. I drew everything from several angles. It took months! I decided—if you’re going to spend several months intimately involved with a dead duck, it’s got to have a name. So, I christened her Amy. Her skeleton still stands in a glass case in my living room, and the book is dedicated to her.
What have you done in your illustrations of birds that hasn’t been done before?
Several things, in fact. Of course, I’m not the first person to draw skeletons. There are some utterly gorgeous anatomical illustrations from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At this time however, natural history was preoccupied with taxonomy, and the emphasis was on showing obscure features that were thought to reveal evolutionary relationships. If whole skeletons were pictured at all, they would probably have been drawn from specimens mounted in static and inaccurate postures.
What I wanted to do was combine the aesthetic beauty typical of these historical images with information about living birds—their behavior and lifestyle. I wanted to focus on the effects of convergent evolution, or how different bird groups have adapted to similar niches. The skeletons in The Unfeathered Bird are shown flying, swimming, feeding—each in the way typical for that group.
What museum collections did you work from?
I used museums for many of the drawings of individual skulls and for skeletons of the species that I wasn’t able to obtain freshly dead. I’m indebted to the many curators and collections managers who allowed me to use their research collections, issued loans or sent photographs. (I only used photographs in conjunction with actual specimens, but they were nevertheless very useful.) Most articulated museum specimens, however, are not in a reliably lifelike position, and certainly not in active or characteristic poses. For that, we’d have to prepare our own.
When you collected your own specimens, where did you collect them, and how did you prepare them?
No birds were harmed in the making of the book. We approached aviculturists, taxidermists and conservation charities and received, as donations or on loan, a large quantity of birds that had died of natural causes. This way, we could prepare the skeletons at home in the required position. I say “we” but my husband, Hein, did all the work. (Hein, too, is a museum curator and ornithologist, with many years’ experience in preparing bird specimens.) He prepared most by boiling, then would clean and reconstruct the skeleton in whatever position I dictated. Actually, we discussed each at length and usually arrived at a decision we’d be mutually happy with! Our tiny house was soon completely taken over with skeletons in various stages of preparation—from pans boiling on the kitchen stove to toucans in the sink, and penguins in the bath!
How did you keep the skeletons in position?
Once they were re-assembled, with a wire through the vertebrae and all the other bones either wired or glued in place, Hein’s skeletons are as robust as any museum specimen. Drawing the musculature of skinned birds as though they were alive, however, was much more difficult. Sometimes I’d rig up the carcasses on a Heath Robinson-esque maze of wires, pins, thread and blocks of wood to make a faintly grotesque artist’s mannequin. Otherwise, I’d just sit with the bloody carcass draped over my lap and use references of living birds to re-animate it directly on the drawing.
How did you determine which species to include?
It was more difficult to decide which species not to include! I could happily have gone on adding drawings forever. The more I researched, the more I discovered things I felt I simply had to put in.
I tried to cover as many of the traditional groups as possible, with at least one bird shown as a complete skeleton and sometimes additional drawings showing the musculature or feather tracts of the whole bird. Extra drawings of skulls, feet, tongues, windpipes and other bits and pieces were included to show variation or adaptations of particular interest.
What types of information did you want your drawings to convey to viewers?
When I first had the idea for the book I’d intended it to be aimed primarily at artists and illustrators. Therefore, I wanted to focus on the way a bird’s anatomy affects its outward appearance—what’s actually going on underneath the feathers when a bird is moving. It was only afterwards that I realized that it would have wider appeal.
It might be easier to say what I didn’t want, and that can be summed up in two words: annotated diagrams. If you want to know the names of individual bones, look in a textbook! For The Unfeathered Bird I felt it would only clutter up the images and, worse still, make readers feel obliged to read and learn them. My aim was to convey general principles about the way birds are adapted to their lifestyle.
Some people might be surprised to find the arrangement of chapters based around Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae. There were several reasons for this, but it was chiefly so that I could compare similar adaptations in unrelated birds, whilst still following a recognized (albeit antiquated) scientific order.
About how long did you spend on each drawing?
The more practiced I am, the faster I get, or, more accurately, the better the eye-hand coordination with fewer rubbings out! But on average, a skull will take an hour or two and a whole skeleton may take up to a week, or even longer. Backache, neck ache, eye-fatigue and sore fingers are the things that slow me down.
What specimen presented the most challenges? And why?
Without a doubt, the greatest challenge was drawing lifelike skeletons from bones that were not articulated at all—the ones in scientific reference collections in natural history museums. As a former bird curator at Britain’s Natural History Museum, I know that the people using skeleton collections—mostly zooarchaeologists—need to study the articulating surfaces of individual bones, so they’re not much use if they’re glued or wired together. However, this makes it quite difficult for artists!
I worked out a clever solution: I would draw the skeleton of another bird already prepared in the position I wanted, then rub out and re-draw each bone in turn, with reference to the respective bone of the desired species. It works remarkably well.
Probably my favorite picture in the book, the Magnificent Frigatebird, was drawn in this way, from a disarticulated skeleton loaned to me by the Field Museum, Chicago, modelled from the position of the tropicbird it’s chasing. I’m a huge fan of both frigatebirds and tropicbirds (with feathers on), so it was important for me to get it right, and do justice to the dynamism and excitement of a real-live aerial pursuit.
December 12, 2012
With a stark white background and a splash of color, minimalist master Andrew Zuckerman has reinvented the way we look at the world around us. Known for his crisp photographs of celebrities and wildlife, Zuckerman turned his lens on the plant kingdom and captured 150 species in full bloom for his latest book Flower.
The filmmaker/photographer culled through over 300 species—even visiting the Smithsonian Institution— to select plants both familiar and exotic. Armed with a 65 mega-pixel camera, Zuckerman’s images capture the color, texture and form of each flower and showcase them in a way never seen before. Smithsonian.com’s multimedia producer, Ryan R. Reed, recently interviewed Zuckerman to find out more about Flower and the creative process behind the images.
You’ve shot portraits of politicians, artists and endangered species. Why did you decide to turn your camera on flowers?
I am very interested in the natural world, honestly not as a scientist or from any intellectual place, but from a visual perspective. I am really interested in this precise translation of the natural world. I like photography as a recording device. It’s the best possible two-dimensional representation of 3D living things that we have.
A project like Flower suits my tendencies. I have really wanted to understand how things work my whole life and then deconstruct things. My work—these books, these projects—are about being curious about a subject. When I want to understand a subject, I decide, okay, I’m going to focus on this for a year, and I go out and I do a lot of research and I find out a lot about the subject, in this case flowers. I partner with people who have flowers in private collections, and I decide to methodically go through it.
The flowers are photographed on stark white backgrounds. Why did you make this choice?
The work is not on white for an aesthetic reason. The flowers are on white because that is neutral; I sort of vacuum everything out. I find that you take a walk in nature and come upon an amazing flower, and that flower, your understanding of it, your interpretation of that experience seeing that flower, is chaotic and confused by everything around it. The weather, the green plants around it, the path you are on, a number of different variables that have very little to do with the flower are there. When I get interested in a subject, I am most interested in honing in and nailing down exactly what it is. So, in terms of a flower, I want to take it out of its context. I want to study its form.
I am not interested in Ted Kennedy in his office on Capitol Hill with his books and his beautiful desk and everything, his environment. I’m interested in him, his face, his expression. How do you reduce the subject down to its essential qualities, and then, furthermore, when you do a number of subjects, how do you democratize all of them so that you can see the differences between them? So that you are not seeing the differences between the white of the background or the light or anything else, but you are just seeing the subject. It seems simple, but for me it’s been a very challenging and exciting process to really find what it is that is truly essential to that singular subject, and then to see it in context of its family rather than the environment that it’s thriving in.
How did you select which flowers you would photograph?
Taking the pictures is the easy part. Getting the subjects and figuring out what I want to do and what will tell the story in the most holistic way is the hard part. I am a big book collector. I love books. For a long time, every time I saw books on flowers, I had just been buying them. I had been tagging pages of flowers.
Darwin’s star orchid, for instance, is not a particularly pretty flower. It’s not even a particularly interesting-looking flower, but the narrative of it is fascinating. It was totally instrumental in Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution. There is this 11-inch spur that is coming off of its blossom from the bottom, and he thought there has to be this insect with some kind of an appendage long enough to pollinate it. No one believed him, but 40 years later entomologists discovered this moth with a tongue that is four times longer than its body. It was the one insect that could unfurl its tongue, get all the way to the bottom past that spur and pollinate the flower.
Then, there is the purple passionflower, which is an incredibly beautiful, vibrant, flamboyant flower, but its narrative qualities are not that interesting to me. So, there were different reasons for different flowers. I wanted to touch on different types of flowers—medicinals, orchids, roses and other groups. For the most part, I have like a hit list, a real wish list, and I have been very fortunate to work with some serious, smart and efficient people here at the studio, who would be calling institutions and private collections and organizing when the perfect date was for a flower to be photographed. Getting an extraordinary place like the Smithsonian to allow me to just roll in and set up a studio in their greenhouses and have the pick of the place is an incredibly lucky thing.
Can you describe the setup for each flower and the techniques that you used?
It’s a numbers game; take as many shots as I can, and I’m going to get the one that I respond to most. Artists, especially, have anxiety…what is my vision? What is me, or is the thing I just did actually an expression of what I have seen? The work that I feel is most authentically mine is the one that is my first reaction, the first thing that feels like the truth. In aggregate, those choices, those series of decisions, create your point of view, your visual language. With Flower, I was searching for that project that I would not have to justify intellectually or think about in any way. That’s what was fun about it.
My set up is very simple. I’ve been doing my lighting and photographing things the exact same way for a very long time. [Robert] Mapplethorpe contextualized flowers. Georgia O’Keeffe contextualized them. They’ve often been metaphors for something of the human condition. I was just interested in the flower; I wasn’t interested in the flower standing in for something else. And so, there’s a reason there are no shadows or romance in my work. I don’t place myself onto the image. I actually try to get myself out of the work so that one doesn’t look at the work and go “wow, that’s an amazing picture” but that someone looks at it and says “wow, that’s an incredible flower.” I’m sort of a conduit to get the information from the natural world to the viewer. The choices made in composition are purely instinctual, and I try to never go, is that right? I think, okay, I put it there, that feels right. As soon as it feels right, I move on; it’s very quick actually.
You produced videos in conjunction with the book. Can you talk about these?
I’d say a majority of my time is spent film making, not photographing, and every single project I’ve done has had a strong film component to it. I’m very interested in multiple entry points; I like houses with lots of doors. When I do a project, I like the idea that someone is going to experience the book, someone is going to experience the film, someone else is going to experience a framed photo on a wall, but they are all going to get to the same root thing as long as all of those mediums are exploring it from the same place.
It was just kind of fun. There’s this long history of time-lapse filmmaking of flowers, and I get especially excited about and challenged by exhausted subjects and mediums. I look at the time-lapse film and I go, is there anything else we can do with this? Is there anything that hasn’t been done yet? Can we breathe life into this? Because it’s not the subject we’re tired of, it’s the execution. So, is there another way to execute this?
I had the flowers around the clock in my studio for a couple of weeks at a time. I would take a singular photograph every five minutes, and then my friend Jesse Carmichael, who was a founder of Maroon Five, made this really interesting score.
Claire Tinsley, Smithsonian.com’s production intern, assisted in the production of this Q&A.
November 28, 2012
“Today we’re spoiled with an abundance of information,” write Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, in their latest book, The Where, The Why, and The How. “We carry devices that fit in our pockets but contain the entirety of human knowledge. If you want to know anything, just Google it.”
Why, for instance, are eggs oval-shaped? The authors wondered—and, in a matter of seconds, there was the answer, served up in the form of a Wikipedia entry. Eggs are oblong, as opposed to spherical, so that they roll in a contained circle (less chance for wandering eggs). They also fit into a nest better this way.
But Volvovski, Rothman and Lamothe, all partners in the design firm ALSO, see this quick answer-finding as a negative at times. In the case of the egg, they say, ”The most fun, the period of wonder and funny guesses, was lost as soon as the 3G network kicked in.”
The Where, The Why, and The How is the authors’ attempt to revel in those “mysteries that can’t be entirely explained in a few mouse clicks.” Volvovski and her coauthors selected 75 not quite answerable questions—from “Where did life come from?” to “Why do cats purr?” to “How does gravity work?”—and let artists and scientists loose on them. The artists created whimsical illustrations, and the scientists responded with thoughtful essays. ”With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information,” say the authors.
Cartoonist Marc Bell took on the stumper, What drives plate tectonics? His imaginative response is pictured above.
Why do we hiccup, anyway? As you can see in his busy and somewhat grotesque illustration, above, comic artist Dave Zackin is entertained by the many scientific theories and folk remedies. Scientist Jill Conte touches on these in an accompanying essay:
Hiccups happen when our diaphragm, the muscle in our chest that controls breathing, spasms involuntarily, causing a sudden rush of air into our lungs. Our vocal cords shut to stem the flow of air, thus producing the sound of a hiccup. No one knows exactly what triggers the diaphragm to spasm, although it’s probably due to stimulation of the nerves connected to the muscle or to a signal from the part of the brain that controls breathing.
Some scientists hypothesize that the neural circuitry implicated in human hiccuping is an evolutionary vestige from our amphibian ancestors who use a similar action to aid respiration with gills during their tadpole stage. Humans have maintained the neural hardware, scientists theorize, because it may benefit suckling infants who must manage the rhythm of breathing and feeding simultaneously.
Notice the tadpoles squirming out of the man’s brain? Can you find the hiccuping baby?
And, what defined dinosaurs’ diet? In the book, Margaret Smith, a physical sciences librarian at New York University, describes how paleontologists sometimes analyze coprolites, or fossilized dinosaur feces, to determine a dinosaur’s last meal. A dino’s teeth also provide some clues, writes Smith:
Through comparing fossilized dinosaur teeth and bones to those of reptiles living today, we’ve been able to broadly categorize the diets of different kinds of dinosaurs. For example, we know that the teeth of the Tyrannosaurus rex are long, slender, and knife-like, similar to those of the komodo dragon (a carnivore), while those of the Diplodocus are more flat and stumpy, like those of the cow (an herbivore). However, whether carnivorous dinosaurs were hunters or scavengers (or even cannibals!) and whether the the herbivorous ones noshed on tree leaves, grasses, or kelp is still uncertain.
Illustrator Meg Hunt stuck to the teeth.
A couple of years ago, Smithsonian published a story that calls dark energy the biggest mystery in the universe–I suspect that Volvovski, Rothman and Lamothe might jump on board with this mighty superlative, given the fact that they asked Michael Leyton, a research fellow at CERN, to comment on the murky topic early in the book. Leyton writes:
In 1998, astrophysicists were shocked when new data from supernovae revealed that the universe is not only expanding, but expanding at an accelerating rate…. To explain the observed acceleration, a component with strong negative pressure was added to the cosmological equation of state and called “dark energy.
A recent survey of more than 200,000 galaxies appears to confirm the existence of this mysterious energy. Although it is estimated that about 73 percent of the universe is made up of dark energy, the exact physics behind it remains unknown.
Artist Ben Finer, in turn, created a visual response to the question, What is dark energy?
The ALSO partners tried to assign scientific questions to artists, whose bodies of work in some way, shape or form included similar subjects or themes. Much like he recast the pigs as architects, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry in his book version of “The Three Little Pigs,” Steven Guarnaccia, an illustrator and former New York Times Op-Ed art director, envisioned a spinoff of Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea called The Old Men of the Sea in his response to “Do immortal creatures exist?”
So, why the wrinkly, bespectacled jellyfish? Well, engineer Julie Frey and Hunter College assistant professor Jessica Rothman’s essay inspired him:
Turritopsi nutricula, a jellyfish that lives in Caribbean waters, is able to regenerate its entire body repeatedly and revert back to an immature state after it has matured, rendering it effectively immortal. Scientists have no idea how the jellyfish completes this remarkable age reversal and why it doesn’t do this all the time. It is possible that a change in the environment triggers the switch, or it may be solely genetic.
Sometimes science is stranger than fiction.