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Chip Clark’s Iconic National Museum of Natural History Photos Resurface

Feather identification expert Roxie Laybourne surrounded by specimens from the SI NMNH avian collection (Chip Clark, SI)
Feather identification expert Roxie Laybourne surrounded by specimens from the SI NMNH avian collection (Chip Clark, SI)

Chip Clark  joined the team at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (SI NMNH) in 1973 as a staff photographer. In addition to capturing high speed images of flying insects, researchers in the field, and numerous specimen studies, Chip spent approximately 20 years creating a portfolio of meticulously composed photographs of the SI NMNH’s monumental collection.  In an article detailing the story behind the photos, Carol Butler, assistant director of collections at SI NMNH recalls,

“[Clark] thought the collections were fabulous and he wanted to show the inner life of the museum and the richness of the collections.”

Each of the images was carefully composed by Chip and the curators; with the team shifting drawers around when necessary to achieve the right balance of color and form. The time commitment required for each image was substantial according to SI NMNH. The photo of the avian collection, for instance, took 8 hours to prepare prior to shooting.

While the images have been around for several years and were included in the SI NMNH centennial exhibition in 2010-2011 shortly after Chip’s death in June, 2010, they’ve generated considerable renewed-interest this week on Reddit and will likely continue to resurface every couple of years for decades. As Carol Butler aptly observed, “…they’re beautiful but they’re also an example of museum practice, collections management and science. I think that’s why they appeal to so many people.”

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