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Jane Ussher photographs examine the natural world

Rebiewed by John Daly-Peoples

Nature – Stilled,

Jane Ussher

Te Papa Press

RRP $70

Visiting the natural history section of the museum is always a rewarding experience, seeing what constitutes the ecosystem we live in. Strolling around the collections reveals some remarkable treasures although we often overlook the smaller, less interesting things. Why spend time looking at bits of coral or lichen covered rocks when there is something more spectacular around the  corner – an elephant or whale skeleton

But these lesser examples of the inhabitants of the ecosystem have been given a bit of a new life thanks to a new book of photographs  by award-winning photographer Jane Ussher. Recently she  spent several weeks in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa’s natural history collection storage areas shooting hundreds of images

The book “Nature – Stilled” consists of  157 images of the insect, fish, mollusc and botanical specimens that represent  Te Papa’s vast and scientifically important collections.

Accompanying the images are texts by the museums curators and collections managers giving concise and unique insights into the fascinating characteristics of each of them.

The book also has information about the museum itself and its development, so we learn it now has a collection of 11,600 skins of New Zealand birds ranging across 290 species and while we know about the demise of the huia population, the South Island piopio became extinct even before the huia.

With many items in the collection it is only by pausing and examining the creatures that we gain an understanding of the design, structures and colourings of them. Ussher’s photographs make one stop and observe in a way that is not possible viewing things in a glass case under poor light conditions.

The photographs of birds are the most interesting with images of many species including huia, yellowhammer, albatross and kākāpō. Ussher has included images of huia and kakapo which are life-size so their plumage can be seen in great detail.

There are  a range of moths both indigenous and foreign including the Puriri moth which we normally only see at night as a brown insect. Seen in the light its natural  yellow colouring and intricate wing patterns make it a much more interesting  example.

The range of butterflies provides examples of Natures glorious colours and designs as well as the insects ; crickets, grasshoppers and locusts we don’t normally pay all that much attention to. But their colouring design and structure are fascinating. and there is also a slightly surreal collection of fleas found in Utah, evidence of the dedication of a true collector.

One set of photographs is of x-rays of fish which provide eerie images of their skeletal structure and one image of a couple of dozen snapper juveniles looks like a shoal of swimming fish.

As well as the “living” creatures there are examples of shells, mosses, and lichens including an unexciting a group of lichens on shards of rock which were collected in the 1950’s from Antarctica. Another items which would normally attract little attention is an ordinary pressed shield fern. The note to this item reveals that it one of the actual ferns collected by Joseph Banks during Cooks first voyage.

Quite incidentally the original wrapping containing a lichen specimen is a copy of a newspaper from 1886  which provides snippets of information from 150 years ago – mention of Sir Randolph Churchill, the Egyptian Question and the partition of Zululand. These and other notes give a context to the museums place in the scientific and cultural changes which have happened since its establishment.

All the photographs are exquisite and they are laid out on the pages in a  sympathetic way with the designer, Arch MacDonnell making the book into a treasure trove of new delights being revealed as each page is turned. The contrast of colours, designs and shapes is like looking through an art catalogue and the book is an art object in itself.

Many of the Ussher’s images of the collection whether they are of local or international creatures seem foreign, as though we have entered an exotic world where the familiar seems novel and exotic.

Papilio blumei (Peacock swallotail)

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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