From Fowl to Zebras: Animals as You've Never Seen Them Before

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It's easy to take this amazing planet we inhabit for granted. While National Geographic's school of nature photography may have its place, there's something remarkable and whimsical that happens when a fine art photographer takes her lens to Earth's creatures -- they become poetry. Today, we turn to five such photographers, whose portraits of animals -- unusual, otherworldly, kooky, tender, charismatic -- make the eye swoon and the heart sing.

1. ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: CREATURE

Andrew Zuckerman is one of my absolute favorite photographers working today, his Wisdom and Music projects are priceless time-capsules of contemporary culture and his thoughts on curiosity and rigor as the key to creativity is a beautiful articulation of my own credo. In Creature, Zuckerman brings his exquisite signature style, crisp yet tender, to Earth's beings. With equal parts detail and delight, he captures the spirt of these diverse creatures, from panthers to fruit bats to bald eagles, in a way that makes them seem familiar and fresh at once, and altogether breathtaking.

Asian Elephant

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Six banded armadillo

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Mandrill Monkey

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Grant's Zebra

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Common Dove

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Canary

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

African Crested Porcupine

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Reticulated Giraffe

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

The project also features a companion children's alphabet book (and we know how much I love those) titled Creature ABC. In 2008, Zuckerman followed up with the equally exquisite Bird.

2. TIM FLACH: DOGS

From photographer Tim Flach and Creative Review editor Lewis Blackwell comes Dogs -- a series of incredibly artful, soulful portraits of man's best friend, first featured here several months ago.

With a potent blend of playfulness and profound respect, Flach captures the remarkable diversity of dogs, both of appearance and of character, and our complex relationship with them in a poetic and spellbinding visual narrative.

From shelter dogs to show-winners to dogs who sniff out explosives, the book spans an incredible range of personalities, portrayed in beautiful images generously stretched across full-bleed double-page spreads and lined with insightful commentary on everything from dog racism (did you know that there are more black dogs in shelters than any other fur color?) to historical background on how different breeds came to be and curious facts about them.

They can entertain us, protect us, teach us how to love, do what they are told, and tell us what is going to happen next. They can even extend our lives. We think we train them to do the work, but they have in turn found a way for us to provide for them. This great form that has forged so many different kinds of dog is the inspiration for this book. The result is an unprecedented insight and visualization of what dogs are and can be.

3. TAMARA STAPLES: FAIREST FOWL

Humans have the beauty pageants. Dogs have the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. But who knew chickens, too, had their own line of competitive narcissism? In The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens, which you might recall, photographer Tamara Staples documents the fascinating and glamorous world of poultry fanciers and their prized barnyard beauties, from the surprisingly elaborate judging process to the distinct personalities of individual birds. Printed on appropriately lavish paper and garnished with a delicious essay by NPR's Ira Glass illuminating the intricacies of chicken portraiture, the book is equal parts rich anthropology of a curious subculture and remarkable feat of photographic brilliance.

Chickens this amazing don't just happen. People help them along -- breed them, nurture them, take them from the humble coop to the top of the poultry world. In what's left of rural America, there is a poultry world. And it's bigger than you think. At a recent national competition, 12,000 birds showed up.

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In the world of championship chickens, there's a 100-point scale, and every feature counts. The American Standard of Perfection is regularly linked to the Bible. Almost every breeder or judge speaks of the book in such exalted terms. The Standard exhaustively discusses every possible nuance of a show chicken, and there is little to no ambiguity between its covers.

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All images copyright Tamara Staples.

4. SHARON MONTROSE: MENAGERIE

Fresh off the press just last week, Menagerie by photographer Sharon Montrose is a stunning collection of her most evocative images that will make you see at even the most familiar animals with equal parts astonishment, awe, and endearment. From lambs to baby porcupines to giraffes, these tender, minimalist portraits exude a certain nakedness that makes the creatures in them appear at once more vulnerable and more relatable.

5. MARK LAITA: SEA

From photographer Mark Laita, whose superb "parallel portraits" of subcultures you might recall, comes Sea -- a masterful piece of visual poetry that captures the creatures of the deep with equal parts cutting-edge photographic technique and imaginative whimsy to explore the extraordinary wonderland that lives beneath the surface of the world's water. From iridescent jellyfish to playful sea horses to prepossessing but deadly puffer fish, the 104 images in the collection reveal the astounding grace, colors, and personalities of these marine characters with unprecedented artistry and passion.

North Pacific Giant Octopus

Jellyfish

Golden Butterly

Green Chromis

Humpback Anglerfish

Red Feather Starfish

Leopard Whiptail

Whale Shark

Blue Spot Stingray

Miniatus Grouper

Full review, along with more images, here.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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