“Serpentine” Celebrates the Beauty of the Snake
2013 is the Year of the Snake; according to the Chinese zodiac, anyone born in the Year of the Snake is said to embody qualities associated with the snake, like being mysterious and private. But while popular culture tends to focus on the scary side of snakes, photographer Mark Laita set out to expose their more positive qualities in his forthcoming book, Serpentine (Abrams Books, $50).
While Laita admires snakes for the beauty of their color, form and movement, he admits that he understands why they make people nervous. “Looking into a snake’s eyes, you don’t see anything," he says. "And your imagination fills in all the blanks, and there’s plenty of blanks.” Still, Laita hopes his striking and sensual photographs will help to reveal the snake as "a beautiful creature.”
The albino black pastel royal python appears camera shy here — and, in fact, this African native may not be unusual in its aversion to being on display. “The interesting thing about snakes, at least for me, is that they are basically passive,” says Laita. “They’re not looking to go find some humans and kill them. That’s not on their list of things to do today. We have to go messing with them in order to instill any type of reaction.”
This royal python posed with its own eggs. Some snakes lay eggs, while others give birth to live young, some of whom Laita also snapped for the book. Are snakes maternal? “It’s difficult just to get the snakes all in one photograph so I don’t think that snakes are a tight little family all hanging out together. I don’t think they all come home for dinner every night,” quips Laita.
A venomous native of Southern Thailand, the aptly-named beautiful pit viper lives up to its moniker with its stunning geometric pattern.This frog and lizard eater was one of the more rare species Laita shot. “In the U.S., we were only able to find one or two collections that had ... the beautiful pit viper,” he says. “But basically any species that I wanted to photograph I could find if I did enough legwork.”
“I just shot between 30 and 50 images of each snake, and we sometimes would get interesting shapes like this,” says Laita of the albino Honduran milksnake. “It wasn’t something we’d try to aim for.”
A fast mover that can be up to 18 feet long, the king cobra is one of the more dangerous snakes Laita shot. When he first went to Florida to photograph this snake, the collector wouldn’t let him, warning that the snake would “mess up everyone in the room if you let it.” Laita built a clear Plexiglas box and photographed the slitherer from above.
Laita knows what most people think of snakes. “Its always ‘Oh, they’re so dangerous and creepy,’ and all that. But I think they’re beautiful as well.” The red spitting cobra found in East Africa combines dangerous and beautiful in a compact four-foot package.
Less colorful but just as curvy is the Mexican black kingsnake. “Not everybody gets to be red and yellow,” says Laita. “Some of them are just black and white, and that’s OK too.”
This juvenile Moroccan cobra could grow to be up to 8 feet long. “Younger snakes tend to be a little like human children — just a little bit less docile, more out of control,” explains Laita. “But they’re smaller, so they’re easier to deal with. The most difficult snake to deal with is a large snake, because they’re capable of moving so much faster than a small snake.”
Rowley’s palm pit vipers are found in the forests of Mexico. Laita hopes his book allows people to see snakes literally in a different light. “Usually we just see snakes in an environment with leaves and branches, so they’re often half obscured,” he says. “But by photographing them this way, you really get a clear picture of how interesting the patterns and the shapes are, and how interesting they are.”
Reticulated pythons can grow up to 32 feet long. Of this particular reticulated python, Laita says, “That was a big fat snake, but it wasn’t a giant.” Still, you don’t want to dilly-dally around a snake that has been known to consume humans. “We just threw the alligator in there. That happened very quickly. I photographed it, and then we shot like two or three frames,” says Laita. Don’t worry, no alligators were harmed in the making of Serpentine — the snake was immediately pulled off his temporary prey. “Though, he was traumatized a little bit,” admits Laita.
Laita found his subjects, like this Vogel’s pit viper, by hooking into a network of collectors, breeders and venom labs around the world. “They have these great collections, and they all seem to know each other,” says Laita. “You tell them what you're looking for, [and] they say, ‘Oh, there’s a guy in upstate New York,’ and then that guy will tell you, ‘There’s a great collector in Kentucky,’ and so on.”