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Galleries We Like: Mark Laita's Snakes

Consider for a moment the drive of professional photographer Mark Laita as a teenager. At 15, having just picked up his father’s camera and discovered the joy of shooting, he hatched a plan. He would photograph rock concerts in Chicago. “That was really the thing I kind of sunk my teeth into,” he says. “I’d wait outside overnight for tickets and get front row seats to pretty much every show that came through town.”

From 1976 to 1979, before Ticketmaster had turned scoring front row seats from a labor of love for the masses into a bidding war for the bourgeois, Laita grabbed a sleeping bag and camped out night after night in ticket lines. He bought four tickets and scalped two in order to make money. He was an omnivore, buying seats to see everything from quirky punk bands at small halls to Frank Sinatra at Chicago Stadium. Along the way he shot the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, and The Who.

He never got backstage access, but he did learn one crucial lesson shooting from the front row. “Just capturing that moment that is a little more compelling than other moments,” he says. “I just think, shooting concerts or sports, which I did shortly after that, was a really great exercise in honing that moment that is more interesting than that moment fractions of a second before or after.”

By 18, he had sold photos that appeared on the cover of Guitar Player and Cream, but realized there was little money in shooting rock concerts. He found what he didn’t like by shooting other things on whims, not unlike a juvenile snake discharging its venom into all the wrong creatures. He tried sports for a year. “I felt like a parasite rather than an artist,” he says. “But shortly after that I met Curtis Kulp, a commercial still life photographer who did a lot of advertising work. He let me come in and help him out and work with him as an assistant for several years, and that’s really how I learned everything.”

Three years later he graduated from Columbia College with a degree in photography. He shot the Sears catalog for a year and earned enough money to move to Los Angeles, where he eventually set up a studio for advertising shoots. That may sound boring, but it’s how he earned a living and perfected his craft. Laita still shoots advertising campaigns during the week, but on nights and weekends and “vacations,” he works on book projects. His latest effort, Serpentine, went on sale on February 26. We called him up to find out how and why he decided to dedicate more than a year of free time to shooting the world’s most venomous and colorful snakes.

You’ve shot everything from snakes to underwater creatures to Mexican wrestlers to ornithology specimens. How do you pick your book projects?
I just select subjects that resonate with me. I certainly am not an animal photographer. Because my last two books are animal books, people assume that I’m an animal photographer. For that reason, I’ll make sure I never shoot an animal again, not for a long time. But I think animals are cool, and particularly snakes and fish. Underwater creatures are almost like space aliens to me. They are just so unusual and crazy and varied and beautiful. They make for a wonderful subject. There’s all of the symbolism behind snakes, which adds to all the magic, but they’re really beautiful—their colors, textures, and the way they move. They’re so graceful. There’s no other animal that really moves like that. That is why I chose snakes, but it could have been any subject. It just happens I found snakes to be interesting on several levels.

How did this project come about?
I photograph a lot of things on the side. I do it for myself and a lot of people never see it. I shot snakes maybe a dozen years ago, and I always remembered how that was a really compelling subject, but I never really pursued it. The first snakes I photographed were pythons or boas. I’d go to a pet shop, find a beautiful one, bring it to the studio, and shoot it. That’s cool, but I knew that there were a bunch more exotic snakes that were a lot more interesting than pythons, and I was right. So I just put in the legwork, did a lot of traveling, and got access to those creatures.

Can you give me a breakdown of the places you went and how you found the snakes?
Yeah, and all of this is listed in the back of the book, but it was collectors, breeders, zoos, venom labs, and serpentariums in Central America and in the U.S. In Florida, there’s a great collector. The zoo in San Antonio was great. There’s the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, in the middle of Nowhere, Kentucky, that’s one of the best in the world. So there’s all of these really unusual and great places and a ton of great collectors. In meeting one person, they’d say, “Oh, you gotta go see this person in North Carolina.” So I’d go there.  I’d go to Kentucky, or New York, or wherever, and by reaching out I’d meet all these people that have these great collections.

Two things really stand out about these photos. I’m wondering if you could talk about why you picked a black background? Also, the snakes seem to be pretty bright in terms of their color. Did you photograph them after they shed, or do something special with the lighting, or photograph them at a certain stage in their life or....
There were snakes that I wanted to photograph, but my timing was wrong. I’d go down to Florida and want to shoot a snake. Say I’d go down to shoot a king cobra, and get that photograph, and then he’d have a rattlesnake that would be really wonderful to photograph, but it would be just getting ready to shed. Shortly after a snake sheds its skin, its color is more intense, its patterns are more vibrant. So I would make multiple trips down to the same place to get snakes at the right time. Because, to me, this project is not about snakes. It’s about color and movement and patterns. That’s why I shot it on black. I’m not showing you what snakes are all about. I’m just showing you how cool color and form can be. The black background just highlights that. It just happens I’m using snakes. I could just have easily chosen fire hydrants or toothbrushes.

Did you have any experiences with snakes as a kid?
Yeah, growing up in Michigan and Chicago I was catching snakes all of the time, but never anything that was dangerous. There are some very dangerous creatures that you want to pick up and handle, but you know it’s not something you do with some of these creatures.

Do you remember your first encounter with a poisonous snake?
I never found a poisonous snake in the Midwest. When I came to California, I found a rattlesnake in the backyard and I was fascinated with it. I handled it very carefully, but not in a way that I was going to get bitten. I don’t know what type it was. There are frogs in our backyard so they come to eat the frogs.

What was the toughest shot in this book?
The king cobras were tough. The owners didn’t even really want to let me photograph them. They saw how I was working with some of the smaller snakes and they were like, “Well, you can’t do that with a king cobra.” And, you know, this book wouldn’t be a book without a king cobra in it, so I knew that was something I had to have in there. So, basically, what I ended up building was a four-foot by four-foot by four-foot plexiglass case that housed the snake and that was OK with the owner and it didn’t compromise the photograph.

There were some very venomous species, but they were smaller, so if you’re three feet away, they can only move so quickly. A king cobra can move across the room in about two seconds. But a smaller snake, a two- or three-foot snake, you could run away from.

How did the process work?
Well, one other thing I should probably mention was that I was shooting them on black velvet. And for some reason, the black velvet seemed to neutralize the snake’s ability to move, which I never mentioned before. I look like a total jackass here standing next to these very poisonous snakes, but once you put a snake on velvet, there’s something about the velvet that would prevent them from trying to move in the direction they wanted to. They would try to move, but they’d kind of squirm and stay put.

What about handling the snakes?
I had snake handlers for each of the venomous species. We would kind of just let the snake do its thing. They would put it on my background and I would let the snake do its thing. Then they would reposition it and put it in the middle of the set. That’s how we shot.

What picture are you the most proud of?
They are all wonderful, but some of the species I had a harder time finding, like the Philippine pit viper that’s on the cover of the dust jacket. That to me was such a prize because it was such a rare species, and the specimen that I photographed happened to be wildly colorful. I saw some others of the same species and they weren’t quite as electric. That one was probably the hardest to find and maybe the biggest payoff because it was so brightly colored and beautiful. And there are certain snakes, like the blue Malayan coral snake, that I had to buy from an importer.

How much did it cost?
I don’t know, maybe $1,000 or $500.

How did you find that Philippine pit viper and why did you want it?
Just the combination of that magenta and chartreuse—it’s such an unusual color combination to find in nature. That’s what attracted me to it. How did I find it? I just asked around with some of the collectors for a really beautiful Philippine viper. I talked to someone who owned one at one point, but sold it. And I talked to the person he sold it to, and that person led me to a third person, and that third person led me to his basement in upstate New York and I just flew up there and we photographed in his basement. And he had a lot of other exotic vipers that were beautiful as well.

So he was just an avid collector that ended up having the snake?
Yeah, it was just.... The next-door neighbor probably doesn’t even know he owns a bunch of crazy exotic wild species. He was missing half of his fingers. Always look out for neighbors with missing fingers.

You were bitten by a black mamba during shooting. Can you walk me through what happened?
I was photographing with a collector who owned a black mamba. He said: “It’s very calm. It’s very docile. You don’t have to worry about it.” He was handling it like it was a boa, like it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t feel we needed to house it, like we did a king cobra, so I photographed it for 20 minutes or so, and it was fine. It wasn’t angry or out of control at all. And the handler turned his back at one point to grab a drink or something and then the snake approached my leg.

Knowing not to run away or move, I just stayed put, knowing that if I didn’t move, it’s not going to strike me. I stayed still and asked him to get me my little point and shoot camera, and I took about 20 to 30 pictures of the snake around my foot, thinking this doesn’t happen every day and let me get some pictures of this. Then he was like, “OK, let me pull this thing away.” He got his hook to pull the snake away, but had inadvertently snagged the cord that connects my camera to the strobe. If you look at the photo it’s this red cord that’s dangling down and is caught in his hook. When he grabbed that cord, the cord kind of dangled, and that’s what led the snake to strike my leg. I was taking pictures the entire time, so my face was behind the camera. I felt something on my leg, but it didn’t feel like a bite. I just thought he hit me with his hook. I kept taking pictures, and after a minute or so, the handler goes, “Dude, you got hit.”

I look down at my leg and there was blood everywhere. The snake had bitten me. Both its fangs had punctured the artery in my calf. I bled heavily. It wasn’t just stuck in my muscle. Both of the fangs hit my artery. It was an older snake, and sometimes older snakes will save their venom for prey they’re going to eat. Certainly he wasn’t planning on eating me, so he may have saved his venom for that reason. Or, it may have flushed out, because I bled so heavily. I’m not sure why I wasn’t poisoned. Nothing happened. He asked me how I felt, and I said I was fine. And then we waited five minutes. And I was fine. And then 10 minutes and I was fine. My breathing. My heart. I wasn’t dizzy. Nothing happened. Here I am a year later.

Holy cow.
The funniest part of the whole thing was later that night I was looking at the pictures and I had no idea I had captured the bite. The bite happened so quickly that no one even noticed that it had happened. In those 20 or 30 images of the snake around my foot there is one with the snake and its jaws in my leg.

What was going through your head?
Well, there’s a little bit of panic. Then you go into denial. I think there was venom at the lab, at the hospital nearby, but I didn’t seem to be reacting. I mean, we were ready to go. He was ready to take me and I just said, “I don’t know that anything is going on.” I’ve heard from snake people since then that the effects from snakebite can happen hours later.

I think that, because it hit my artery, something would have happened right away if it was going to happen. So that’s why we didn’t go to the hospital. I thought I’d be passed out by now if something was going to happen.

That’s amazing.
Yeah. It was nuts.

This project was a huge amount of work for you. Can you talk about what you got out of it?
I like sharing things that are amazing with the world, and that’s basically what it is. It’s as simple as that. I’m not trying to make money on it. There’s not much money to be made. Basically, the same reason a writer writes books, the same reason a songwriter writes songs.

Has anybody said anything about the pictures so far that has resonated?
I guess people have found it interesting. I can’t say I’ve had a whole lot of feedback, so I don’t know.

What about the snake owners? Have you shown the pictures to them?
I sent some early copies of the book to them, and they all loved it. The snake guys would love this book no matter what. They could be terrible photos of snakes and they’d love it. I didn’t really do it for the snake people, but they’re going to love it as much as anybody.

Read More

The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

Pepperberg and I walked to the back of the room, where Alex sat on top of his cage, preening his pearl gray feathers. He stopped at her approach and opened his beak.

“Want grape,” Alex said.

“He hasn’t had his breakfast yet,” Pepperberg explained, “so he’s a little put out.”

Alex closed his eyelids halfway, hunched his shoulders, and looked at her. His narrowed eyelids and hunch made him look crabby.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Pepperberg said to him. “See, I can do it, too.” She narrowed her eyes and gave him a stony look, imitating his expression. Alex responded by bending his head and pulling at the feathers on his breast.

To me, she said, “He’s in a bad mood because he’s molting, and sometimes when he’s like that he won’t work.” She spoke to Alex again, “You’ll get your breakfast in a moment.”

“Want wheat,” Alex said.

Arlene Levin-Rowe, the lab manager, handed Pepperberg a bowl of grapes, green beans, apple and banana slices, shredded wheat, and corn on the cob. Pepperberg held up the sliced fruits and vegetables for Alex, who seized them with his beak. Sometimes he held them with a claw and tore them into smaller bits. If he didn’t want something, like the green beans, he said, “Nuh,” meaning “No.” It was an emphatic “Nuh”—short, and decisive. His voice had a slightly nasal and digitized quality, but it was also tinny and sweet, like the voice of a cartoon character. It made you smile.

Under Pepperberg’s patient tutelage, Alex had learned how to use his vocal tract to imitate about 100 English words, including the sounds for all of the foods she offered him, although he called an apple a “ban-erry.”

“Apples may taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up that word for them,” Pepperberg said.

Alex could also count to six and was learning the sounds for seven and eight.

“I’m sure he already knows both numbers,” Pepperberg said. “He’ll probably be able to count to 10, but he’s still learning to say the words. It takes far more time to teach him certain sounds than I ever imagined.”

Alex was also learning to say “brown.” As a kind of learning aid for “brown,” Pepperberg placed a small wooden block painted chocolate brown next to Alex.

After breakfast, Alex preened again, keeping an eye on the flock. Every so often, he used his claw to pick up the toy block and held it aloft as if showing it to everyone in the room. Then he opened his beak: “Tell me what co-lor?”

“Brown, Alex. The color is brown,” Pepperberg, Levin, and the other assistant replied in a kind of singsong unison. They stretched out brown into almost full two syllables, emphasizing the “br” and “own.”

Alex listened silently. Sometimes he tried part of the word: “rrr ... own.” Other times, he again held up his block and repeated his question: “What co-lor?” And the trio of humans replied together: “Brown, Alex. The color is brown.”

Then Alex switched to the number seven: “Ssse ... none.”

“That’s good, Alex,” Pepperberg said. “Seven. The number is seven.”

“Sse ... none! Se ... none!”

“He’s practicing,” she explained, when I asked what Alex was doing. “That’s how he learns. He’s thinking about how to say that word, how to use his vocal tract to make the correct sound.”

It sounded a bit mad, the idea of a bird willingly engaging in lessons and learning. But after listening to and watching Alex, I found it difficult to argue with Pepperberg’s explanation for his behaviors. She wasn’t handing him treats for the repetitious work or rapping him on the claws to make him say the sounds.

“He has to hear the words over and over before he can correctly imitate them,” Pepperberg said, after she and her assistants had pronounced “seven” for Alex a good dozen times in a row. “I’m not trying to see if Alex can learn a human language,” she added. “That’s not really the point. My plan always was to use his imitative skills to get a better understanding of avian cognition.”

In other words, because Alex was able to produce a close approximation of the sounds of some English words, Pepperberg could ask him questions about a bird’s basic understanding of the world. She couldn’t ask him what he was thinking about, because that was beyond his vocabulary, but she could ask him about his understanding of numbers, shapes, and colors. To demonstrate, Pepperberg carried Alex on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room. She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex’s eye.

“What’s same?” she asked. She looked at Alex nose-to-beak.

Without hesitation, Alex’s beak opened: “Co-lor.”

“What’s different?” Pepperberg asked.

“Shape,” Alex said. Since he lacked lips and only slightly opened his beak to reply, the words seemed to come from the air around him, as if a ventriloquist were speaking. But the words—and what can only be called the thoughts—were entirely his.

Prior to Pepperberg’s study, scientists believed that birds could not learn to label objects. Assigning labels to items was something that only humans could do, linguists such as Noam Chomsky had argued in the 1960s. Scientists were also certain that birds could not understand concepts such as “same” and “different,” or “bigger” and “smaller.” Yet for the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, uttering the labels for a range of items (key, cup, paper) and distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes, and materials (wool versus wood versus metal) of various objects. The concept of “same/different” is considered cognitively demanding. It required Alex to pay attention to the attributes of the two objects and to understand exactly what Pepperberg was asking him to compare—their color, shape, or material. He had to make a mental judgment and then vocally give her the answer, using the correct label.

Next, she and Alex moved on to some simple arithmetic, such as counting the yellow toy blocks among a pile of mixed hues. Animals’ ability to count is a much debated subject, but Alex seemed able to do this (and Pepperberg had published several papers attesting to his skill). He even understood the concept of zero, or none, as he called it—again, the only animal, other than two chimpanzees, so far known with this ability.

And, then, as if to offer final proof of the mind inside his bird brain, Alex spoke up. “Talk clearly!” he commanded, when one of the younger birds Pepperberg was teaching mispronounced the word green. “Talk clearly!”

“Don’t be a smart aleck,” Pepperberg said, shaking her head at him. “He knows all this, and he gets bored, so he interrupts the others, or he gives the wrong answer just to be obstinate. At this stage, he’s like a teenage son; he’s moody, and I’m never sure what he’ll do.”

“Wanna go tree,” Alex said in a tiny voice.

Alex had lived his entire life in captivity, but he knew that beyond the lab’s door there was a hallway and a tall window framing a leafy elm tree. He liked to see the tree, so Pepperberg put her hand out for him to climb aboard. She walked him down the hall into the tree’s green light.

“Good boy! Good birdie,” Alex said, bobbing on her hand.

“Yes, you’re a good boy. You’re a good birdie.” And she kissed his feathered head.

Reprinted with permission from Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell. Published by The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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Must Read: 'The River Swimmer'

In The River Swimmer (Grove Press, $25), Jim Harrison once again demonstrates why he is perhaps the best American writer working in the largely ignored novella form. In “The Land of Unlikeness,” the first of the two long stories that comprise the book, we meet Clive, a failed artist and divorcé in his mid-sixties who travels back to his Michigan home to drive his bird-crazed mother around the countryside, seduce boyhood flames, and rediscover his love for painting.

The superior title story centers on Thad, a Michigan farmboy with a deep love of rivers and girls, in that order. He has a somewhat supernatural talent for navigating waterways, once swimming from the farm, which is on an island in an unnamed river, to Chicago, his clothes in tow in a fanny pack. Growing up, Thad is befriended by “water babies”—infant water spirits who live in a pond on the island. Eventually, in France, he’s injured when a powerboat hits him, and while convalescing back home, he manages to slip into the water-baby pond, from which the little sea-monkey creatures egg him onward, to the mouth of the river and, eventually, Lake Michigan.

The River Swimmer probably won’t earn Harrison a new audience—loyal readers will find the well-worn characters and settings and the themes of wild love and regret as comfortable as a wine-stained flannel shirt. But you get the sense that the author doesn’t really care, and that’s exactly why you should.

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