Rob Hardy on books


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Snakes in Art Photographs



Rob Hardy


I have been stodgy for decades, and now I am also old, so I think I will never be flexible enough to adopt the new reading technology of e-books. Many of my contemporaries think they are quite wonderful, but I will be sticking with paper and ink. Here is one thing that e-books will never do: replace the coffee table art book. And here is one coffee table art book that needs to be seen in all its oversized and colorful spectacle. Serpentine (Abrams) by Mark Laita has the simplest of formats. It is just pictures of snakes on a black background, usually one big snake coiled or extended on one big page. It is so stripped down that even page numbers are absent, and you can only find identifications and basic information about the specimens in the book's back pages. Laita does commercial photographs of food and studio portraits, and says this isn't really a book about snakes. Laita did not pick his subjects with any scientific criteria in mind. They are here removed from any natural habitat and given their own portraits. Each picture is a study of color, form, and texture, and all the pages of this big, fascinating book are worth seeing. I cannot remember a book that as I turned the pages, more frequently got me to go, sometimes aloud, "Wow." 




Laita traveled all over to get these pictures of snakes from all continents, except Antarctica. In his acknowledgments at the end of the book are all sorts of mentions like a thank you to a named collector "in New York, who provided some of the world's most beautiful and rare vipers from his private collection." In the acknowledgements also are thanks to "a certain Central American collector who shall remain anonymous out of fear of losing his license because of the black mamba incident." You won't find much else about this incident in the book, but a Google search will even show you the picture of the incident, which was when Laita was photographing the black mamba with the help of a snake handler. The snake moved close to his feet, the handler reached with his crook to bring it in, he snagged a cord from a camera instead, that scared the snake, and it bit Laita in the leg. Laita had been bitten before, but not by venomous snakes; the bite of the black mamba is supposed to be 100% fatal, and the only probable reason that Serpentine was not released posthumously is that Laita had suffered a dry bite without injection of venom. In his prologue, Laita writes, "To look through my camera and take in these sensual, luxurious, and elegant creatures is intoxicating at times. It's the ultimate 'look, but don't touch' scenario."  




The cover of the book, and a few pages within, show the Beautiful Pit Viper from Thailand. It is banded in irregular stripes of pink and green. It eats frogs and lizards, and one of the pictures shows it "(after feeding)," with a bulge two-thirds of the way down its length. The Western Green Mamba has long, almost feather-like scales until they take a more reticular, hexagonal pattern toward the tail. The Speckled Kingsnake has diamond-shaped scales, each scale with a white or yellow dot. In one of the few action shots here, a Reticulated Python is shown wrapping itself around an alligator. The notes in the back say that this snake can grow up to 32 feet long, and is a constrictor that "Eats birds, mammals (including humans)." The bright green Rhinoceros Snake, from China or Vietnam, has a pointed nose and must be pretty rare; we don't, according to the notes, know what it eats in the wild or how it breeds. The Mussurana from Central and South America is pure black and white and looks like a Holstein cow turned into a serpent. The African Bush Viper has scales that look like little leaves, and which extend from its body like the leaves of an artichoke, making it look very much like a dragon. On opposite pages are two different species of cobra, one with a hood spread to show two "eyespots" and one showing only one; they are, respectively, the Spectacled and Monocled Cobra. The irregular white spots on black background of the Diamond Python from New South Wales make it look as if a galaxy of stars were illustrated in its scales. 




The diversity of these adders, bushmasters, rattlers, and boas is astonishing. Laita writes, "Their beauty heightens the danger. The danger amplifies their beauty." He also notes that while we look to eyes to try to understand what a fellow-creature might be thinking, snake eyes are cold and unblinking, revealing a horrifying nothing. Still, eyes are not on display in most of these pictures, which show that wedge-shaped head from above, sometimes with a protruding tongue, and followed by a sinuous, muscular body tapering to the tail. It's a detached view, emphasizing these handsome creatures as abstracts and aliens on every enticing, scary page. Put this fine book on your coffee table and I guarantee it will not be untouched by visitors.



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