• September 15, 2015

Abstraction Finds Beauty in Beasts

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

There are 15 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dennis Hearing
    October 4, 2015

    Truly stunning! Bravo!

  2. Chris LaPrise
    September 29, 2015

    This blows my mind. This morning, my wife walked into the room (in tears) holding this months issue of Nat Geo. All she could say was “omg”. She showed me the article and I found out why she was crying. Your images and your description above reinforce the work I’ve been doing over the past year. I specialize in creating images from medical cannabis, but I also love imaging flowers, moss, fire and a few other models. I would love for you to see some of my work.

  3. Kevin
    September 28, 2015

    I remember, as a child, how intrigued I was with kaleidoscopes. How some random picture was transformed itno wondrous art.
    Using today’s technology to reproduce something that is as old as the prism itself may allow todays children share that old world wonder. I still have an old one through which i project its images to a screen or wall.

  4. Fornik Tsai
    September 28, 2015

    It’s amazing.

  5. Hilda Echeverría
    September 28, 2015


  6. S. A.
    September 28, 2015

    The whole site is gloriously splendid!

  7. Laureen
    September 27, 2015

    Great creative idea and beautiful photos. I love the whole idea of what you are doing and the abstract images.

  8. Karine
    September 27, 2015

    I have never seen anything like this… It is breathtaking.

  9. M
    September 27, 2015

    These images are breathtaking. They are giving me inspiration. I am in the process of reworking my website (mildredkaye.com). I want to build the tabs from elements in my art. I may try altering them with mirroring techniqiues.

  10. Shirley Sacks
    September 27, 2015

    these are exquisite

  11. Judi Podgurski
    September 27, 2015

    What a wonderful way to show the beauty in all living things ! Absolutely stunning work.

  12. Linda Camacho
    September 27, 2015

    Really seeing possibilities!

  13. Suzanne Williams
    September 27, 2015

    I still can’t figure out how you do it…is there a youtube tutorial on this? Do you capture the reptile and then kill it and slice it open …I do see the beauty in the results where I would never see any thing but fear before. Thanks

  14. Marion Roberts
    September 22, 2015

    Anyone care to see what I do with photos of plants – abstractions in photoshop

  15. Maisha
    September 16, 2015

    This is so beautiful!

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