Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Picture This: Mark Laita captures the beauty of nature's deadliest serpents

by Take Two®

Black Mamba bite Mark Laita

This much we know for sure about the black mamba snake: its venom is very poisonous and it can kill you. That's something photographer Mark Laita recently learned that firsthand.

Laita makes his living as a commercial photographer, you've likely seen his work on products ranging from the iPhone to Gatorade. But his passion is portraits of everything from people and peonies to seahorses and snakes. For our series on photography called Picture This, we spoke with Laita about his new book, "Serpentine," which features images of snakes from throughout the world.  

Laita joins the show with more about his project, his shooting style, and how he managed to survive a black mamba bite. 

Interview Highlights:

On why he wanted to create his book "Serpentine":
"To me it's not a book about snakes, to me it's a book about color and form and movement. If you're looking for something to convey those qualities, what better than a snake?"

On finding the pit viper he chose for the cover:
"I couldn't do a project like this without getting that snake. I had seen a photo of it and none of the collectors or zoos or breeding labs that I had been dealing with had ever had one. I kept hunting and hunting relentlessly. I found this collector of pit vipers in upstate New York who had a basement full of really exotic, beautiful, only pit vipers. And he had this snake, only one of them."

On why he chose to shoot the snakes on black velvet:
"Most of the snakes, you'd put them on this black velvet and something about the nap of it, the fur, kept the snakes from moving. They'd try to scramble and get away, but they for some reason couldn't grip and they wouldn't move and they'd do whatever they could then eventually just stop and give up and take these poses that I end up capturing."

On his shooting style:
"I looked like a fool because I was standing next to some of these snakes. If you see how I'm shooting it, it looks like I'm standing right next to this very dangerous, venomous snakes, but the truth is they couldn't really move that quickly. I'm not reckless, maybe a little bit, but something about the velvet kept them from being able to move as quickly as they'd want to."

On being bitten by a venomous black mamba during shooting:
"The black mamba that I was shooting was about 14 or 15 feet long, and it's a heavier snake, whatever the case, the handler said it is a very timid snake, you don't have to worry about it. Everything was fine for the 20 minutes I was shooting it, he turns his back and right as he did that the snake kind of came around my foot. Knowing to not panic and move, I sat there and had this black mamba wrapped around my ankle, I asked him to give me my little point and shoot camera. He gives me the camera, I'm taking like 20 or 30 snapshots of this black mamba around my foot, which doesn't happen every day.

"He grabs his hook to pull the snake away and he inadvertently snags the red cord you see in the picture. The red cord dangled and that created the movement that startled the snake and it struck whatever was hot, which was the artery in my calf. Both fangs hit the artery, but my face is behind a camera and neither of us noticed that the snake had hit me. It didn't hurt, I didn't feel a thing. It wasn't like a lion biting me, it must have been just a fraction of a second. He pulls the snake away and I'm back to taking pictures...he goes, 'Dude you got hit,' and there's blood gushing down my leg. I start to panic a little bit...I was in Central America, we probably could have found the anti venom, so I probably would have survived, but whatever the case nothing happened. I think what happened was it was a very old snake, and I read that older snakes sometimes with save their venom for only prey they're going to eat."

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