Thursday, November 27, 2014

Aaron Hegert | Thayer's Concealing Coloration

Gerald H. Thayer (c1909), Male Ruffed Grouse in Forest
When the first edition of Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom was published in 1909, the author of record was artist-naturalist Gerald H. Thayer. His father Abbott H. Thayer wrote the introduction, while also contributing heavily to every aspect of the book, which bore as its subtitle An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern: Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Discoveries.

Among the Thayers’ closest friends was the naturalist and wildlife artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. In 1956, Fuertes’ daughter, Mary Fuertes Boynton•, recalled that Abbott Thayer “wanted people to see for themselves what he had discovered…He was constantly devising new means of persuasion: placing woodpecker skins upon photos of trees against sky, hanging papier-maché models of patterned oryx heads in trees, taking people into the wood to look for themselves at a mounted peacock concealed in bright sunlight” (p. 128).

Of the many persuasive images in Concealing Coloration, few are as accomplished as a small, intricate watercolor painting (reproduced facing p. 38) by the book’s author, the younger Thayer, of a Male Ruffed Grouse in the Forest. It epitomized what the Thayers believed was the only legitimate option for bird artists—the immersion of the subject in its natural setting, most easily accomplished by (in Abbott’s words) “making a background wholly out of the bird’s colors” (Boynton, p. 214). This led to painful letters between the Thayers and a distraught Fuertes, with the latter being pressured by publishers to paint clearly identifiable birds (in the subsequent handbook tradition), free of the clutter of backgrounds.

Gerald Thayer’s ruffed grouse painting, wrote Fuertes’ daughter, “is a wonderful work of art, perhaps greater than anything Louis ever did. He took six months to paint it (he painted very few pictures at all), and he never made that adjustment to the world that would insure a normal means of earning a living for his family. The advice he gave Louis was good, but Louis could not take it and live…[Abbott Thayer] made an Eden for his children that was not of the world, worldly, yet he left them ill equipped to live with that world, and without the financial means that would enable them to live without it” (p. 217).

Photos of mimetic holes (1909), Concealing Coloration

In a later section of Concealing Coloration, there is a wonderfully curious page [above] comprised of what the Thayers describe as “Bits of animals’ patterns, all representing holes… Among these are mingled reproductions of actual holes to show how close is the resemblance” (p. 159).

I was reminded of these pages from the Thayers' book when I was recently made aware of the work of Aaron Hegert, an American photographer who teaches at Whittier College in CA. Motivated in part by his interest in the Thayer demonstrations, Hegert has produced a camouflage-themed limited edition book (called Action, Time and Vision) of photographs and photographic experiments, some of which are “take-offs” on the images in Concealing Coloration. Of those, I was especially struck by a page spread [below] in which he has juxtaposed the two pages discussed in this blog post, the page of photographs of holes and his interesting revisionist look at Gerald Thayer’s ruffed grouse painting, in which the subject is even more greatly obscured by bringing in bits of the background.

Aaron Hegert (2014), spread from Action, Time and Vision

A selection of Hegert’s images are available online as is a preview of the book.

• See Mary Fuertes Boynton, Louis Agassiz Fuertes: His Life Briefly Told and His Correspondence (NY: Oxford University Press, 1956).