February 26, 2013
Mark Laita captured plenty of photographs of snakes striking, their mouths agape, in the making of his new book, Serpentine. But, it wasn’t these aggressive, fear-inducing—and in his words, “sensational”—images that he was interested in. Instead, the Los Angeles-based photographer focused on the graceful contortions of the reptiles.
“It is not a snake book,” says Laita. As he explained to me in a phone interview, he had no scientific criteria for selecting the species he did, though herpetologists and snake enthusiasts will surely perk up when they see the photographs. “Really, it is more about color, form and texture,” he says. “For me, a snake does that beautifully.”
Over the course of the project, Laita visited zoos, breeders, private collections and antivenom labs in the United States and Central America to stage shoots of specimens he found visually compelling. “I would go to a place looking for this species and that species,” he says. “And, once I got there, they had 15 or 20 others that were great too.” If a particular snake’s colors were muted, Laita would ask the owner to call him as soon as the animal shed its skin. “Right after they shed they would be really beautiful. The colors would be more intense,” he says.
At each site, Laita laid a black velvet backdrop on the floor. Handlers would then guide each snake, mostly as a protective measure, and keep it on the velvet, while the photographer snapped away with an 8 by 10 view camera and a Hasselblad. “By putting it on a black background, it removes all of the variables. It makes it just about the snake,” says Laita. “If it is a red snake in the shape of a figure eight, all you have is this red swipe of color.”
Without much coaxing, the snakes curved and coiled into question marks, cursive letters and gorgeous knots. ”It is as if these creatures are—to their core—so inherently beautiful that there is nothing they can do, no position they can take, that fails to be anything but mesmerizing,” writes Laita in the book’s prologue.
For Serpentine, the photographer hand-selected nearly 100 of his images of vipers, pythons, rattlesnakes, cobras and kingsnakes—some harmless, some venomous, but all completely captivating. He describes the collection as the “ultimate ‘look, but don’t touch’ scenario.”
In his career, marked with the success of having his work exhibited in the United States and Europe, Laita has photographed flowers, sea creatures and Mexican wrestlers. “They’re all interesting, whether it’s in a beautiful, outrageous or unusual way,” he says, of his diverse subjects. So, why snakes then? ”Attraction and repulsion. Passivity and aggression. Allure and danger. These extreme dichotomies, along with the age-old symbolism connected with snakes, are what first inspired me to produce this series,” writes Laita in the prologue. “Their beauty heightens the danger. The danger amplifies their beauty.”
Laita embarked on the project without any real phobia of snakes. “I used to catch them as a kid all of the time. I grew up in the Midwest where it is pretty hard to find a snake that is going to do too much damage to you,” he says. If he comes across a rattlesnake while hiking in his now home state of California, his first impulse is still to try to grab it, though he knows better. Many of the exotic snakes Laita photographed for Serpentine are easily capable of killing a human. “I probably have a little more fear of snakes now after dealing with some of the species I dealt with,” he says.
He had a brush with this fear when photographing a king cobra, the longest venomous snake in the world, which measures up to 18 feet. “It is kind of like having a lion in the room, or a gorilla,” says Laita. “It could tear apart the room in second flats if it wanted to.” Although Laita photographed the cobra while it was enclosed in a plexiglass box, during the shoot it “got away from us,” he says. It escaped behind some cabinets at the Florida facility, “and we couldn’t find it for awhile.”
He’s also had a close encounter with a deadly black mamba while photographing one at a facility in Central America. “It was a very docile snake,” he recalls. “It just happened to move close to my feet at some point. The handler brought his hook in to move the snake, and he inadvertently snagged the cord from my camera. That scared the snake, and then it struck where it was warm. That happened to be the artery in my calf.” Smithsonian contributing writer Richard Conniff shares more gory details on his blog, Strange Behaviors. Apparently, blood was just gushing from the bite (“His sock was soaked and his sneaker was filled with blood,” writes Conniff), and the photographer said the swollen fang marks “hurt like hell that night.”
Obviously, Laita lived to tell the tale. “It was either a ‘dry bite,’ which is rare, or I bled so heavily that the blood pushed the venom out,” he explained in a publicity interview. “All I know is I was unlucky to be bitten, lucky to have survived, and lucky again to have unknowingly snapped a photo of the actual bite!”
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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.
October 31, 2012
Alan Dudley is obsessed with skulls. At the age of 18, he found a fox carcass near his home, skinned the animal and prepared its skull for museum-like display. “His single fox became a fox and a bat; then a fox and a bat and a newt; then fox, bat, newt, anteater, owl, cuckoo, monkey; and on and on,” writes Simon Winchester, a bestselling author, in a new book.
The 55-year-old taxidermist now has more than 2,000 skulls in glass cases and mounted to walls in his home in Coventry, England. His personal collection, thought to be the largest and most comprehensive in the world, is only growing, as he continues to acquire specimens from zoos and dealers. A penguin. A red-bellied piranha. A giraffe. “You name it, I’ve got it, I’ll take any skull—as long as it’s not human,” Dudley recently told the Daily Mail.
In a new book, Skulls, Winchester shares Dudley’s curious collection with the public. With some input from the British collector, he selected more than 300 skulls—from mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians—with the aim of presenting “as representative a cross section of the vertebrate universe as was possible.” Photographer Nick Mann captures these skulls from several angles, so that readers can view them as if they were turning them in their own hands.
The skulls are exceptional educational pieces. Dudley’s preparation of the skulls preserves them in fine detail. He soaks each one in a bucket of cold water for weeks to months. “The blood vessels, the bands of cartilage and clumps of muscle, as well as the eyes and tongue and soft palate and hearing mechanisms, all vanish, and what remains is an off-white amassment of curvilinear bones, some hard and some soft, some massive and some delicate,” writes Winchester, in Skulls. He then washes the skull, whitens it with hydrogen peroxide and applies a thin coat of varnish.
Skulls naturally accentuate the toothiness of wild animals; some of the fangs are quite menacing. But, overall, the collection conveys a sense of beauty, rather than horror.
I think Winchester puts it best. “Perhaps no other biological entity retains such a grip on human psychology as does this assemblage of hollow bone, this thing of domes and sockets and jaws and of mysterious interior passageways and canals,” he writes.
October 26, 2012
One of the core missions of the Smithsonian Institution is to understand and sustain a biodiverse planet. Many projects have been implemented across the Smithsonian with this noble intention. One of my personal favorites is the Biodiversity Heritage Library, for which the Smithsonian Institution Libraries is a founding member.
Launched in 2005, BHL is an impressive one-stop web-shop where researchers can access digital copies of thousands of scientific books and journals from 14 natural history museum libraries, botanical libraries and research institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Seven years into the ambitious undertaking, the digital library has collected over 39 million pages from nearly 57,000 titles. BHL has also uploaded over 45,000 impeccably detailed illustrations of plant and animal species to its Flickr account.
Scientists around the world report that BHL, in many ways, streamlines their research. The library has allowed botanist Joe Shaw, for instance, to locate the original descriptions of many species of cacti. Joachim Ladwig, an amateur fossil collector in Germany, used BHL to solve a 20-year mystery. By reading the original papers describing two species of cow sharks, he was able to unequivocally conclude that fossil teeth he unearthed belonged to Hexanchus microdon. Not to mention, BHL has allowed the National Museum of Natural History’s Chris Mah, one of the world’s leading experts on starfish, to download foreign texts about different species and quickly and easily translate them in Google Translate.
That said, nonscientists find uses for the catalog as well.
Recently, I found myself happily lost in the colorful creatures inhabiting BHL’s Flickr collections. From lions to lizards, hawks to herring, it is a virtual zoo! I was transfixed by an illustration (shown above) of Natalus stramineus, the Mexican funnel-eared bat, published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in the mid-19th century. The illustrator diagrammed certain physiological features, like the bat’s ears, in the way that an artist might in a study for a particular painting. In a strange way, the piecemeal analysis of the creature reminded me of a sewing pattern. My eyes wandered to an image of a lobster’s claws laid out like sleeves.
What great inspiration, I thought, for Halloween costumes!
If you are still looking for a costume idea, take a gander at these images culled from BHL. Study them, and when you are fashioning wings, ears, eyes and shells, pay close attention to detail. The more scientifically accurate you are, the more recognizable your getup will be!
This illustration of two American lobsters, drawn from life, shows the antennae, walking legs, abdomen, tail fin and other anatomy of the crustacean. The red lobster is a two-pound female caught near Mount Desert, Maine, in 1894. Below her is a 1.5-pound male captured near Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1891. Decide if you want to be a miss or a mister, and note the differences in coloring.
To dress as a cobra, model a homemade headdress after the hood of this Indian species, Naga tripudians. Decorate your hood with this realistic pattern of scales.
A butterfly is a simple costume to construct. Cut a pair of wings out of poster board; attach twine straps, and wear them like you would a backpack. Branch out from the familiar monarch butterfly, and consider painting your wings to resemble these lesser-known (at least in North America) species. The peacock butterfly (on the left), found in Britain, has “large compound eyelets, reddish in the centre, and the inner half of the outer circle of a rich golden yellow, the outer half being of a fine sky blue, with several dark spots in it,” according to The Book of Butterflies, Sphinxes and Moths (1832). The imperial trojan (on the right) is native to Ambon Island in Indonesia. Of this particular species, Carl Linnaeus said, “It may be doubted whether Nature has produced any object more beautiful amongst the insects.”
Great Horned Owl
Owls seem to be in vogue for Halloween. Whether you are crafting a mask or applying face paint, this illustration of a Great Horned Owl from the early 1900s may be a useful guide.
To pull off a tortoise costume, pick up a baggy sweatshirt. Paint the front and back of the shirt to match one of these shells, from two different tortoise species. Then, stuff the back of the sweatshirt with a pillow or several t-shirts.
Lesser Devil Ray
Fashion a cape in the shape of this eagle ray, known to live in the western Atlantic Ocean. The head of the ray can wrap around your own head. Add loops to the underside of the cape, at the tips of the ray’s wings; this way, you can slide your fingers in the loops and swim about.
For more ideas, explore BHL’s Flickr account!