Animal tales: Northampton exhibit of photography and poetry looks at the threats animals face, as well as their beauty

A photo of the remains of a blacknose skate, accompanied by the poem “Skate Fishing”

A photo of the remains of a blacknose skate, accompanied by the poem “Skate Fishing” Image courtesy Stephen Petegorsky

Naila Moreira says the poems she wrote to accompany the photos of animal remains in “Clearstories” are an outgrowth of her interest in writing about the natural world.

Naila Moreira says the poems she wrote to accompany the photos of animal remains in “Clearstories” are an outgrowth of her interest in writing about the natural world. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Photographer Stephen Petegorsky talks about the images of animal specimens he took as part of a joint project, “Clearstories,” with writer and natural scientist Naila Moreira. The exhibit is now on display at R. Michelson Galleries.

Photographer Stephen Petegorsky talks about the images of animal specimens he took as part of a joint project, “Clearstories,” with writer and natural scientist Naila Moreira. The exhibit is now on display at R. Michelson Galleries. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Writer and natural scientist Naila Moreira says she hopes visitors to “Clearstories” will be able to appreciate the photos of animal specimens and her accompanying poems in a fresh way by seeing them set together.

Writer and natural scientist Naila Moreira says she hopes visitors to “Clearstories” will be able to appreciate the photos of animal specimens and her accompanying poems in a fresh way by seeing them set together. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Stephen Petegorsky and Naila Moreira have combined photography and poetry in “Clearstories” at R. Michelson Galleries. The exhibit matches images of specially treated animal specimens with poems that look at the threats animals face — as well as their beauty.

Stephen Petegorsky and Naila Moreira have combined photography and poetry in “Clearstories” at R. Michelson Galleries. The exhibit matches images of specially treated animal specimens with poems that look at the threats animals face — as well as their beauty. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

An photo of snake skeletons, accompanied by the poem “Two Snakes”

An photo of snake skeletons, accompanied by the poem “Two Snakes” Image courtesy Stephen Petegorsky

“Flying Fish,” a photo and its accompanying poem

“Flying Fish,” a photo and its accompanying poem Image courtesy Stephen Petegorsky

A particularly ghostly image of a dead rabbit, with its accompanying poem

A particularly ghostly image of a dead rabbit, with its accompanying poem Image courtesy Stephen Petegorsky

An image of a Fringe-toed sand lizard, found in southwestern U.S. deserts. The accompanying poem contemplates the species’ dramatic loss of habitat.

An image of a Fringe-toed sand lizard, found in southwestern U.S. deserts. The accompanying poem contemplates the species’ dramatic loss of habitat. Image courtesy Stephen Petegorsky

An image of a Common king snake, with its accompanying poem, “Ouroboros.” 

An image of a Common king snake, with its accompanying poem, “Ouroboros.”  Image courtesy Stephen Petegorsky

Photographer Stephen Petegorsky, right, talks about his joint exhibit at R. Michelson Galleries, “Clearstories,” with writer and natural scientist Naila Moreira. At left is Paul Gulla, manager at the Northampton gallery.

Photographer Stephen Petegorsky, right, talks about his joint exhibit at R. Michelson Galleries, “Clearstories,” with writer and natural scientist Naila Moreira. At left is Paul Gulla, manager at the Northampton gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

ABOVE: Writer and natural scientist Naila Moreira laughs with Paul Gulla, manager of R. Michelson Galleries, and photographer Stephen Petegorsky. Moreira and Petegorsky have put together a joint exhibit of poetry and photography, “Clearstories.”

ABOVE: Writer and natural scientist Naila Moreira laughs with Paul Gulla, manager of R. Michelson Galleries, and photographer Stephen Petegorsky. Moreira and Petegorsky have put together a joint exhibit of poetry and photography, “Clearstories.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Naila Moreira and Stephen Petergorsky have combined poetry and photography, respectively, in “Clearstories” at R. Michelson Galleries. The exhibit matches images of specially treated animal specimens with poems that look at the threats animals face — as well as their beauty.

Naila Moreira and Stephen Petergorsky have combined poetry and photography, respectively, in “Clearstories” at R. Michelson Galleries. The exhibit matches images of specially treated animal specimens with poems that look at the threats animals face — as well as their beauty. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 02-02-2024 11:53 AM

When he was growing up in New York City, Florence photographer Stephen Petegorsky was fascinated by the skeletons and diorama displays of animals in places like the city’s Museum of Natural History, developing an early interest in the science and art of taxidermy.

And Naila Moreira has long been engaged in the natural world in a number of ways, including as an environmental consultant and in particular through her writing as a science journalist, essayist, and poet.

Now the two have combined on an unusual project: an exhibit that juxtaposes detailed photographs of small, skeletal animal remains with poems that speak to the mystery and beauty of the animal world — and the threats many creatures face in a world transformed by humans.

“Clearstories,” which has just opened at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, includes haunting, often ghostly-looking photos of small specimens — snakes, fish, birds, lizards, frogs — that have been soaked in a special enzyme solution to make their tissue transparent.

Then the remains are stained with two different dyes to make their bones and cartilage darker colors and thus more visible.

It’s a technique scientists use to enhance their study of animal anatomy and development, Petegorsky says. In his case, photographing these treated specimens — something he’s been doing for about 10 years — is a starting point for more artistic exploration.

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“I don’t approach this intellectually,” he said during a recent interview at the gallery. “What draws me in is the structure of what’s inside [the animals]. It’s something we don’t normally get to see — it’s like something you really shouldn’t be seeing.”

“But how can you not be inspired by the complexity and the beauty of what’s inside these critters?” added Petegorsky, who photographed the specimens from collections at several museums and universities, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Moreira, who teaches science writing and directs a journalism project at Smith College, in turn drew inspiration for her poems from the photos as well as larger issues such as climate change and habitat destruction.

“Doing this reminded me of the projects that are attempting to photograph animals for fear they may go extinct,” she said, pointing to an effort in particular by longtime National Geographic contributor Joel Sartore to photograph thousands of species in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries. (The project is called Photo Ark.)

“This project is kind of an inversion of that — it’s showing skeletons instead of whole creatures — and that also makes a connection to the threat of extinction,” added Moreira, who has a doctorate in geology from the University of Michigan.

Yet the photos and the accompanying poems are also “a celebration of life,” she says, one that “speaks to the important place animals hold within a web of ecological community … and in our own lives, whether in fairy tales, mythology, medicine or so many other ways.”

For Petegorsky’s photograph of two crossed snake skeletons, for instance, Moreira’s poem references ancient Greece and its myths about a serpent living at the center of the earth: “Who knew / there could be this sisterhood / of snake? // Well, at Delphi the Python / guarded the temple, matriarchy of / priestesses.”

The photos also invite a range of comparisons. Petegorsky’s blown-up image of a robin’s skull and upper body reminds one of the links between birds and dinosaurs, while a Common king snake, coiled in a circle against a multi-colored backdrop, wouldn’t look out of place on an ancient Chinese tapestry.

“I like the narrative aspect [of the exhibit],” said Paul Gulla, the Michelson Galleries manager. “It’s almost like the photos and poems reanimate” the animals.

An organic process

Petegorsky’s photographs are not straight shots of the animal specimens. Aside from enlarging most of the images, he’s played with color and contrast and created colorful backdrops for all the creatures.

Those seemingly abstract backdrops, though, are based on altered photos of elements of the natural world. For instance, a photo of a Fringe-toed sand lizard, a small reptile found in the deserts of Arizona and southern California, is backed by an abstracted rendering of sand.

He photographed the specimens by removing them from the vessels and other containers they were stored in and placing them on a sheet of plexiglass; then he positioned a flash below the plexiglass and photographed the specimens from directly above.

“Clearstories” has something of an extended organic history. Petegorsky explains that years ago, a previous curator of Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Stephen Calcagnino, showed him some taxidermy specimens in the museum’s storage rooms. Some of those same specimens ended up at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Petegorsky says, and he examined them again in 2014.

But UMass also had numerous examples of cleared and stained animal specimens, he notes, which he found particularly appealing. (His broader portfolio includes photos of preserved whole animals as well as varied landscapes such as Northampton’s Meadows region.)

“I began to research the process, and I wanted to photograph [the specimens] from an artistic angle,” he said. “I had to talk my way into different places to take pictures, but I found the collections managers were often pretty excited about the cross-disciplinary aspects of what I was doing.”

Several years ago, Petegorsky and Moreira met when Moreira, then the writer-in-residence at Forbes Library, invited Petegorsky to be part of a panel discussion on photography she hosted there. He later contributed a photo for the cover of her 2017 poetry chapbook, “Water Street.”

Petegorsky also invited her to his studio to examine his photos of the animal specimens to see if they might serve as fodder for her writing.

“I was intrigued,” said Moreira. “Natural history is at the center of what I’ve done my whole life, and I’m very drawn to that interplay between science and my writing.”

Though they didn’t make any formal plans to work together, Moreira ended up writing poems based on Petegorsky’s photos, and the two shared some samples of the work online during the pandemic. Petegorsky’s picture of a baby crocodile and Moreira’s accompanying poem also appeared in Scientific American in January.

The two decided more recently to try and exhibit the work in a gallery.

“You get a very different perspective when you can see the work in-person, see the photographs up close, and read the poems in context,” said Petegorsky. “I felt that myself, seeing everything together for the first time.”

“Clearstories” is on view at Michelson Galleries through Feb. 29. An opening reception for the exhibit takes place Feb. 9 from 6 to 8 p.m. as part of Northampton’s Arts Night Out.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.