A&E

Beauty in the beast

Palo Alto photographer offers abstract visions of nature

A brief glance at one of Michael Kern's photographs, and you might mistake it for an abstract work in stained glass, or the image seen through the lens of a kaleidoscope.

Look again.

Those jewel-like hues, those striking geometric patterns are in fact borrowed from nature -- from the scales, feathers and skin of some of the world's rarest creatures.

This is "abstract reality," a style of nature photography Kern created almost by accident but which has captivated viewers. Most recently, his colorful images caught the attention of one of the country's most prestigious publications: The October issue of National Geographic features a 10-page spread of Kern's work.

For the Palo Alto business consultant-turned-professional photographer, it's still a bit hard to believe the impact these images have had. Sitting in his Midtown home, where a spotted California kingsnake and an Australian carpet python overlook the dining room table from their terrariums, Kern spoke about the "abstract reality" series with a mixture of amazement and pride.

A reptile fanatic since childhood, his interest in snakes was reawakened in adulthood when his sons begged him get them one as a pet. Next came a subscription to Reptiles Magazine. Kern, the son of a talented amateur photographer, looked at the photos in each issue and thought, "I could do better than that."

Kern joined the Palo Alto Camera Club to hone his technical skills and was determined to get his work published in Reptiles -- a goal it didn't take him long to accomplish. In 2005, after 25 years of management consulting with Accenture, he made the decision to leave the industry and devote himself full-time to photography.

Ten years and many thousands of images later, Kern finds himself enjoying a moment of relative fame, though the works currently garnering interest represent only a fraction of his oeuvre -- a side project initiated nearly a decade ago for practical rather than artistic reasons.

"I needed to create a letterhead for my photography business, so I took a shot of an iguana's eye and mirrored it," he said, showing the resulting image: a reptilian face with a piercing gaze so perfectly symmetrical it was otherworldly.

"This was the first mirror I did," he noted with wonder, "and it ended up joining the permanent collection at the Smithsonian."

Kern began using Photoshop to create increasingly elaborate mirror images, often manipulating the original photograph until the subject -- be it snake, spider or frog -- was nearly unidentifiable: reduced to a mesmerizing quilt of color and texture.

What Kern discovered in exhibiting these works was that viewers who would shrink away from up-close photographs of poisonous vipers or tarantulas would lean in much closer to investigate the abstract version of the very same images. Maybe, he began to think, the "abstract reality" series could function as an introduction to these creatures, many of whom were endangered but few of whom captured the public affection like polar bears, dolphins, otters or wolves. Might people develop more interest in the reptiles and arachnids he cared so much about if they could appreciate their sheer beauty separately from their familiar -- and sometimes threatening -- shape?

"The idea is to take the form out of the equation and keep the color, pattern, texture, line, so people can appreciate the natural components," Kern explained. "Snakes in particular have been demonized in our culture, our books, even the Bible," he added. "People fear them, and rightfully so; a bite from a poisonous snake can have serious consequences."

Yet at the same time, he said, "They're very beautiful animals as well; some people are just too freaked out at first to see that. The whole 'abstract reality' concept is to help people bridge that gap."

A scroll down the homepage of Kern's website, thegardensofeden.org, gives a sense of his preferred subjects, from exotic amphibians, invertebrates, reptiles and birds to the abstracted images that have recently launched him into the national spotlight. These images also exemplify Kern's signature style: His subjects tend to fill the frame and nearly always appear against a black background rather than a natural setting. For all his fascination with the natural world, Kern doesn't necessarily see himself as a "nature photographer" and acknowledges that he doesn't fit neatly into either high art or nature photography circles. Though he occasionally shoots in the wild, he's more often found working with zoos, conservation groups, importers and breeders. His ultimate aim is to get his animal subjects into a controlled studio environment for what he calls a fashion shoot.

"I'm dealing with captives," he said, adding that while he loves going on expeditions to far-flung places like Madagascar and New Caledonia in search of rare species, he rarely gets his best shots on these excursions.

"I'm a control fanatic," he admitted. "It's a photo-frenzy in the field; it's a non-controlled situation. In the studio, I can work with handlers to control the environment. I can capture the animals as I see them."

Though Kern sometimes shoots at his home studio, many of his images are captured while visiting other facilities, thanks to a kit of traveling lights and other handy tools. Among his most challenging subjects are birds. At Pandemonium Aviaries in Los Altos -- a nonprofit bird sanctuary that works to save rare breeds from extinction -- Kern has built a custom bird photography studio where he can safely photograph the birds in flight thanks to high-speed flashes, soft padding and custom perches that can be gently shaken to destabilize the birds and encourage them to lift off. In this way, Kern finds he can capture everything from their bright plumage to their colorful personalities.

Last year, Algonquin Press published "The Birds of Pandemonium," a book written by the organization's Michelle Raffin and featuring more than 25 of Kern's color photographs. In one of the more comical shots, an African Grey Parrot faces the lens directly, tipping its head back and opening its beak wide to expose a striped gray tongue and a long neck of ruffled feathers.

Reptilian species tend to wear more sedate expressions. An albino green iguana eyes the viewer with something resembling patient disdain, its stippled neck framed by the handsome vermilion spines on its back and the reddish dewlap hanging beneath its jowl.

A controlled environment, a skilled handler and plenty of patience are required to capture such shots, but Kern says there's more to it than that. Among his principles is that of shooting on the animal's level rather than peering down on them from above.

"I always travel with knee pads in my car," he explained, describing what he called "the psychology of the angle of shot."

"Looking down on an animal suggests you have authority over it," he explained. "I want to shoot peer to peer."

Establishing eye contact with the viewer is crucial with certain animals, Kern feels, though in the case of arachnids, it's less relevant. His image of a critically endangered sapphire ornamental tree spider, for example, focuses on the electric blues and golden yellows of its legs and uses back-light to capture the glow of the fine filaments of hair covering its body.

There have been occasional close calls with venomous snakes, Kern noted, but he feels confident in his ability to call off a shoot if a handler seems ill-equipped or an animal appears distressed. For the most part, he relishes stepping into the studio with animals that would make some people's blood run cold -- species he refers to simply as "under-appreciated."

"I've worked to be able to capture these animals in their splendor," he explained.

And in the "abstract reality" series, through a careful manual process of digital duplication and rearranging, Kern feels he is "distilling the animal into its essence." In the process, he's also transforming fear into fascination, revulsion into awe.

Though reptiles are his first love, Kern has more recently branched out into other photographic subjects including architecture, which in turn has developed his interest in interior design. Eventually, he said, he can imagine his abstract reality images being used in that context. So what if that eye-catching wall tapestry was inspired by the scales of an Oriental whip snake? Beauty is beauty. Or, as Kern put it, "Nature's color palette can't be beat."

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