May 30, 2013
Those who have a neurological condition called chromesthesia associate certain colors with certain sounds. It’s these people that I think of when I see Mark Fischer’s Aguasonic Acoustics project. Fischer systematically transforms the songs of whales, dolphins and birds into brightly colored, psychedelic art.
The software developer from San Jose, California, gathers the sounds of marine mammals in nearby Monterey Bay using a hydrophone and the chirps of birds in his neighborhood with a digital recorder; he also collects audio of other hard-to-reach species from scientists. Fischer scans the clips for calls that demonstrate a high degree of symmetry. Once he identifies a sound that interests him, he transforms it into a mathematical construct called a wavelet where the frequency of the sound is plotted over time. Fischer adds color to the wavelet—a graph with an x and y axis—using a hue saturation value map—a standard way for computer graphic designers to translate numbers into colors. Then, he uses software he personally wrote to spin the graph into a vibrant mandala.
“The data is still there, but it’s been made into something more compelling to look at,” wrote Wired.
The first animal sound that Fischer turned into visual art was that of a blue whale. “I was spending some time down in Baja California. Someone had posted a note on MARMAM [the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation email list] looking for volunteers for a blue whale population survey out of the University of La Paz, and I volunteered. We spent the next three days in the Sea of Cortez looking for blue whales,” says Fischer. “We never did find a blue whale, but I was able to make recordings. I just got fascinated with the sounds of whales and dolphins.”
Fischer concentrates on whales, dolphins and birds mostly, having found that their calls have the most structure. Humpback whales, in particular, are known to have incredible range. “They make very well defined sounds that have extraordinary shapes in wavelet space,” says the artist. The chirps of insects and frogs, however, make for less engaging visuals. When it comes to a cricket versus a humpback, Fischer adds, it is like comparing “someone who has never played a guitar in their life and a violin virtuoso.”
Animal sounds have long been studied using spectrograms—sheets of data on the frequency of noises—but the software designer finds it curious that researchers only look at sounds this one way. Fischer finds wavelets much more compelling. He prints his images in large-scale format, measuring four feet by eight feet, to call attention to this other means of analyzing sound data.
Some researchers argue that little progress has been made in understanding humpback whale songs. But, Fischer says, ”I am concluding that we are looking the wrong way.” The artist hopes that his mandalas will inspire scientists to look at bioacoustics anew. “Maybe something beneficial will happen as a result,” he says.
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, will include a selection of Fischer’s images in “Beyond Human,” an exhibition on artist-animal collaborations on view from October 19, 2013 to June 29, 2014.
March 7, 2013
David Morrow, a 27-year-old aerospace engineer by day and budding photographer by night, was perched at Sunrise Point on the evening of October 6, 2012. From the popular viewing spot in Mount Rainier National Park, he had a clear view of Rainier, the 14,411-foot beastly stratovolcano to his west. As he recalls, at about 9 p.m. the sun had set and the stars began to appear. Filling the viewfinder of his Nikon D800, quite brilliantly, was the Milky Way.
“It is not often that you see the Milky Way line up so perfectly with an earthly object,” said Morrow, when his resulting photograph (shown above) was selected as a finalist in Smithsonian.com’s 2012 photo contest. “The stars almost looked as though they were erupting from the mountain and I knew this was a moment in time that I had to capture.”
For a decade now, Smithsonian magazine’s annual photo contest has been a loving ode to these moments. Each year, photographers from around the world submit entries in five categories near and dear to us: the Natural World, Travel, People, Americana and Altered Images. Our photo editors, who have reviewed more than 290,000 photographs from upwards of 90 countries in the contest’s history, then select 10 finalists in each category.
This week, Smithsonian.com announced the finalists for the 2012 photo contest. At this point, the public is invited to vote on a readers’ choice winner, and, ultimately, our editors will select category winners and a grand prize winner, to be revealed later this spring. We here at Collage of Arts and Sciences have a special affinity for the Natural World images, which beautifully capture animals, plants and landscapes; geological or climatological features; and scientific processes and endeavors.
So what makes a finalist stand out from other entries?
“Quite simply, I look for something that I have not seen before,” says Maria G. Keehan, Smithsonian magazine’s art director. For the Natural World submissions, she and her colleagues sifted through a fair share of photographs of pets, rainbows, mating insects and horses in misty light (“Misty anything has kind of taken its toll on me,” says Keehan) to parse out images that accomplish something truly unique—like capturing an unusual or rare animal behavior. “Of course good technique and composition are always part of the judging structure, but originality is what strikes me. I really look for things that make you gasp or question,” she adds. “Not just, ‘Oooo, beautiful bird,’ but ‘Wow. Look at the perspective on that. They shot the image through the bird’s wings!”
To make the cut, a photograph has to evoke a visceral reaction. Future contestants, take note. Keehan’s advice is this: “Trust your (natural!) instincts about what is peculiar, remarkable or sublime.”
Without further ado, here are the remainder of the 10th annual photo contest’s Natural World finalists:
Phillip Pilkington snapped a portrait of a fluffy, four-week-old Tawny owl (above) at a bird enthusiast’s home in Southport, UK. “I was aiming to do a traditional studio portrait of an unusual studio subject,” he says. The owl was still, and so it made for an ideal sitter, the photographer recalls. “I just concentrated on the photography,” Pilkington adds. “I wanted to do a close-up shot, [but] at the same time I didn’t want to get too close, and that is why I chose to crop the image.”
When Vanessa Bartlett took up photography last year, she needed, in her words, a “subject that wouldn’t shatter my fragile photography ego.” So, she went to the Bronx Zoo. On an October day, she photographed baboons, giraffes and lions, but it was a gorilla that stole her attention. “They’re majestic,” says Bartlett, of the primates. “But the expression he gave was what made me take the photo.”
Bartlett sat with the gorilla for about 30 minutes, just a pane of glass separating them. “Just as a photographer likes a look a model gives in the middle of a shoot, I saw a look I loved from the gorilla,” she says. “What I caught was a personal, private moment. That’s what’s so captivating.”
On May 20, 2012, Americans, especially on the west coast, were privy to an annular solar eclipse—where the moon blocks all but the outer ring of the sun. “My husband and I heard about the eclipse a few days before it happened,” says Colleen Pinski, who captured the image, above. “So, I was compelled to take some photos of it…I couldn’t miss the ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to shoot it.”
Colin Hutton was in the Duke Forest, a 7,060-acre tract of land in North Carolina used for research, when he took this remarkable close-up of a caterpillar of a North American moth (Antheraea polyphemus). He was actually searching for jumping spiders, but this little guy was a welcome diversion. “I really like the glowing quality of the caterpillar’s skin and the devious look of its defensive posture,” says Hutton. “It reminds me of the character Mr. Burns from The Simpsons as he says ‘Excellent…’ while tapping his fingers together.”
Bjorn Olesen was on a week-long trip to Sarawak, Borneo, in November 2010, when he photographed this juvenile Spectacled Spiderhunter (Arachnothera flavigaster) calling out to its parents. “In my view the photo demonstrates the great strength of still photography: to freeze those magic moments that may have otherwise been unnoticed,” says Olesen. “The soft light, the inspiring pose, the color of the bird goes very well together with the beautiful palette of greens of the ferns.”
Neal Piper spent 12 days in Antarctica in February 2012. “I have always been fascinated with penguins and dreamed of visiting Antarctica to see them in their natural habitat,” he says. To get to Damoy Point, where he took this photograph, Piper traveled three days by ship through the Drake Passage and then took a short jaunt on a small motorized raft to his campsite, where he would study a breeding colony of Gentoo penguins.
“Although it was a bitter cold evening, I woke up to a beautiful sunrise. The snow was glimmering upon the majestic mountains,” says Piper. ”I looked over at the colony of Gentoo penguins and saw a few of them overlooking the cliff, almost as if they were enjoying the view. I grabbed my camera and watched them for about an hour until one of the adults and newborn chicks looked into the horizon. I knew right then I had the shot. After taking the photo I looked down at the viewfinder and instantly smiled.”
According to Piper, Gentoo penguins have funny personalities. “After studying them for a week, I discovered that they are very loving and protective to their newborn chicks. To build their nests, they pick up rocks with their beaks, usually stolen from another penguin nest, and place them on their nest. Once the perpetrator places the rock on its nest, the victim often reclaims it and places it back on its own nest. It was a very entertaining scene,” he says.
“A water pipe in Duluth is ‘bled’ every year to ensure it doesn’t freeze,” says Nathan Carlsen, the photographer who captured the finalist, above. “As the water freezes, it builds this amazing ice geyser.” As an experiment, the Minnesotan dangled a rope of LED lights down the geyser. “I knew it would light up well as it is perfectly clear ice, but I had know idea how beautiful it would be. Every year the formation looks a bit different and I go out to it to take a few more [photos]. But this one, the first one, still proves to be my best shot so far.”
Eko Adiyanto stumbled across this scene of ants fiercely gripping seeds in Bekasi, West Java, Indonesia, last April. He felt compelled to take the photograph, above, because it seemed like a super-ant feat of strength. “They are small but very powerful,” says Adiyanto. [Correction, March 13, 2013: As entomologist and Scientific American blogger Alex Wild addressed recently, Adiyanto did not stumble across this scene. In an email, the photographer has explained that he gave the seeds to the ants to bite and then lifted, placed and stacked the ants on the branch himself. Once the ants were in these positions, he took the photograph.]
Don Holland enjoys photographing birds in flight, particularly great egrets and bald eagles. He was driving a stretch of road in Reelfoot Lake State Park in northwest Tennessee when his wife spotted a pair of bald eagles in a dead tree nearby. “I stopped the car immediately and began photographing the eagle pair eating what appeared to be the remains of a coot. Since most of the food was gone, I realized I didn’t have time to mount the lens on the tripod to capture the action. I handheld the camera and lens for the sequence of photos I took in the short time before the eagles flew,” recalls Holland. “The sky was bright-cloudy, and the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds at 20-30 degrees over my right shoulder. With evenly dispersed and adequate light, I worked quickly to take advantage of the special opportunity of capturing the behavior of the eagle pair in an uncluttered background.”
February 14, 2013
Happy Valentine’s Day, Collage readers! I’ll be brief. I just wanted to pass along this cool find—a print by artist and designer Jacqueline Schmidt. In a style that smacks of scientific illustration, Schmidt depicts 12 species that, generally, remain loyal to a single mate over the course of a lifetime.
With gray wolves (#1, in the diagram), couples pair off Sadie-Hawkins style. The female determines her mate. The alpha female and alpha male are the only pair to breed, from January to March each year, in a pack of wolves, and they keep things monogamous. Meadow voles (#6) are quite loyal. The rodents make the most of their short lives; a female lives less than a year, on average, but starts breeding with a single mate about 28 days into life. Males are sexually mature by 35 days. Termites (#7) have been found to use a “honeymoon” period to welcome other suitors to the log, but they ultimately settle down with one partner. Sandhill cranes (#12) also form until-death-do-us-part bonds. A male and female perform unison calls to solidify their relationship; then, leading up to mating, there is an elaborate dance ritual. Both cranes take care of the nest.
As the founder of Screech Owl Design, Schmidt is known for taking on natural subjects and delivering calendars, t-shirts, stationary and posters in an urban-chic kind of way. “This ability was first shaped by childhood migrations between New York City, where she was born and raised, and her Catskills summer home,” says Schmidt’s Web site. This particular print, made of 100 percent recycled paper, is titled “Mates for Life.”
Taxidermy: dying trade or resurgent art form? As an outsider—I have never hunted, let alone stuffed and mounted an animal—I was tempted to think the former. Then, I spoke with Paul Rhymer, a former Smithsonian taxidermist and model maker.”Taxidermy is alive and well,” he says. “Commercial taxidermy, for hunters, has probably never been stronger than it is now—and probably never been better. The skill levels have just gotten so good with all the different advances in materials and techniques.”
Rhymer is a traditionalist. He hails from the museum world, where he spent 26 years (1984 to 2010) creating realistic taxidermy for display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Rhymer and his colleagues produced 274 mounted specimens for the museum’s Behring Hall of Mammals, which opened in 2003; he also had a hand in the now four-year-old Sant Ocean Hall. A bunch of his critters—a maned wolf, a grévy’s zebra, several primates and a pair of penguins, among others—still inhabit the museum. When he wasn’t making new mounts from donated animal carcasses, he was restoring existing ones. In 2002, he gave the museum’s panda a dye job, bleaching its yellowed hair white and dying it’s dark fur a deeper black.
But, even with his institutional background, the second-generation taxidermist is quick to express his appreciation for a new sect of bold artists working in the field. Armed with the know-how to skin, clean and stuff animals, these “rogues” place animal specimens in fantastical contexts; they even build strange hybrids of different species. “This element has been around for a very long time too. You have Victorian guys making whole wedding scenes with little kittens dressed up in wedding dresses,” says Rhymer. “But rogue taxidermists are just taking it to another level.”
“Immortalized,” a new television show premiering on AMC tonight (10/9c), pits taxidermists of both types against each other in what its host, Zach Selwyn, calls “creative combat.” I was able to screen two kooky episodes in the series’ first season, and although the show seems to lack the shiny finish one might expect from a big network, I have to admit I got a kick out of its premise. Oh, and its tagline too. “Immortalized,” says Selwyn, at the close of each segment, “where it is not whether you win or lose, but how you display the game.”
The concept of the show is this: There are four superstars in taxidermy—two traditionalists and two rogues—who, for the purposes of the show, are called “Immortalizers.” Each episode, one Immortalizer takes on an outside “Challenger.” The challengers, like the veteran immortalizers, can be artists or commercial taxidermists. The two contestants are given a theme—some examples include “End of the World,” “First Love” and, the even more confounding, “Self Portrait.” They prepare a piece at home over the course of a few weeks and then return to the studio for a face-off. Rhymer was tapped to be one of three judges; he is joined by artist-taxidermist Catherine Coan and the nasally-voiced comedian, actor and writer, Brian Posehn. Together, the trio scores each submission on craftsmanship, originality and adherence to the theme in each submission, and the total score determines the winner.
“I thought this could really be a lot of fun, and it was! I had a great time doing it,” says Rhymer. “I have my favorites. But, I thought that, by and large, the work that all of the taxidermists brought to it was really, really neat.”
Rhymer has competed extensively at taxidermy conventions, but “Immortalized” was different. “The competitions I had been to in the past were ‘mount this duck,’ ‘mount this fish,’ ‘mount this deer.’ These [challenges on "Immortalized"] were much more open to the imagination, and just much crazier scenarios. Someone put a lot of thought into figuring out which themes would really produce some provocative pieces,” he says.
In one bout, immortalizer Page Nethercutt, the award-winning proprietor of Moore’s Swamp Taxidermy in New Bern, North Carolina, and challenger CJ Fegan, an up-and-coming taxidermist from Edgewater, Maryland, presented two very different pieces meant to convey the same theme, “End of the World.” Nethercutt created a mount of a fierce bobcat attacking a quail; Rhymer describes it as “very intimate, natural, very precise.” Then, in the opposite corner, Fegan prepared a “sci fi and epic and colossal” scene capturing multiple animals in a panic.
Taxidermy is a unique blend of science and art. Any taxidermist with years of experience will have a solid understanding of animal anatomy. But that alone does not make for great mounts. “As an artist,” adds Rhymer, “you have the deer head that is just sticking on the wall and it is looking straight ahead, or there is a way of creating that thing, mounting it and doing something that is not only natural and scientifically accurate but also beautiful.”
Rhymer hopes that “Immortalized” will show that someone who prepares taxidermy can still respect animals. “I would like the general population to see taxidermy in a new light,” he says, “that it’s not just rednecks who do it and that even we who define ourselves as rednecks, and I count myself among them, have a real deep appreciation for wildlife.”
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.