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Abstraction Finds Beauty in Beasts

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The head and plumage of a Temminck’s tragopan

People have an almost primeval fear of reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids. As humans have evolved, we’ve learned to avoid these animals—for good reason, in many cases. That means most of us never get to experience and appreciate their beauty. And some of these species need our help. By using abstraction to remove fear and prejudice, I’m trying to help people see the beauty in the beast.

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Variable bush viper (left) and greenbottle blue tarantula

I start by shooting a portrait of an animal; then I deconstruct it into its most basic elements: color, line, pattern, texture. Those isolated features are the building blocks of a new image, which I alter in Photoshop—making a mirror image of a cropped portion, cropping a portion of the mirrored image, and so on. The result is a pair of portraits: one abstract, one of reality.

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Some of the creatures that have formed the base of Kern’s imagemaking, clockwise from left: variable bush viper, Temminck’s tragopan, Johnston’s three-horned chameleon, rainbow millipede, African flower mantis, panther chameleon, and greenbottle blue tarantula. The Temminck’s tragopan was photographed at Pandemonium Aviaries in Los Altos, California.

I began this series almost by accident. I wanted to create a letterhead logo for my photography business, and since I’d always loved reptiles, I photographed an iguana. I thought one of its eyes was striking as a stand-alone picture, but it wasn’t the right size for the letterhead. So I tried mirroring the image on top of itself. What emerged was both beautiful and surreal—unlike anything in nature, even though it was wholly based in nature.

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Panther chameleon (left) and rainbow millipede

Each abstraction I make is different; there’s no formula. Sometimes it takes just one crop and mirroring, and the image is complete; other times it takes much more. And some don’t work at all. But for me the journey is as interesting as the destination. Watching the image evolve with each iteration is gratifying; I get to be both creator and observer of the process and its results.

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African flower mantis (left) and Johnston’s three-horned chameleon

At my shows I like to present the abstract images first. Initially when people look at them, I think they sense a tension between the prettiness of a picture and their fear of the subject it’s made from. But as they realize it’s just a picture, they creep closer, studying the details. When I’m successful, their fear changes to fascination. At this point I hope they can enjoy equally the beauty of both the abstract and realistic images. I think that’s the value of what I’m creating: getting people to open up and appreciate these animals, which I hope might be a first step toward protecting them.

A century ago the cubists reduced natural forms to their geometric equivalents and changed perceptions in the process. I hope that my work, like theirs, can be understood on multiple levels: as a pretty picture, as a puzzle to piece together, and as a means of empathizing with species that need saving.

See more of Michael D. Kern’s work on his website and in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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