The photographs in Mark Laita’s new exhibit “Serpentine,” which opens this weekend at the Academy of Natural Sciences, are stunning on a purely abstract level, with bold colors, sinuous curves, and strikingly tactile textures. It’s almost enough to make you forget just how deadly his subjects are.
“I found I tended to get caught up in the beauty of these creatures when I was behind the camera,” Laita says, “and often forgot how dangerous they could be.”
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Laita, a Los Angeles-based fine-arts photographer whose work ranges from socially conscious portraiture to glamorous commercial work, spent more than a year in Central America shooting a wide range of snakes in the care of collectors, breeders, zoos and venom laboratories. “All the handlers and collectors were very professional,” Laita says of the experience. “I did see a few missing fingers here and there, but mostly, everyone I worked with was great.”
His portraits of these fanged serpents divorce them from their environment, placing them against a backdrop of stark black to further emphasize their aesthetic qualities. “I wanted to simplify the visual and make it purely about the shapes their bodies create,” he says. “For me, this just a study of form, color and movement. That snakes are connected to so much symbolism makes it even more interesting. Everyone seems to have an extreme reaction — positive or negative — to snakes.”
Laita traces his own interest in snakes to his childhood in Detroit. “As a kid in Michigan,I was always catching snakes, frogs and salamanders," he says. "Even where I live now, in California, I've created an environment where the native species of frogs, snakes, newts, etc., can thrive.”
The book, also titled “Serpentine,” which collects these photographs follows “Sea,” a collection of similarly-shot images of sea creatures. But don’t expect Laita’s future work to necessarily follow along a similar trajectory.
“I try to push myself to do something different,” he says, “to not repeat myself. Now that my last two books featured animals, I'll make sure I steer myself in a very different direction. The variety of subject matter keeps it interesting for me.”
June 15-Sept. 15
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
1900 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.
Museum admission $13-$15, 215-299-1000