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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Nature - Stilled by Jane Ussher

Te Papa - New Zealand's national museum - holds over one and a half million items in its vast natural history collection.

In Nature - Stilled, award-winning photographer Jane Ussher captures the collection's incredible range, beauty, mana and significance.

The 170 images capture the glory of insect, fish, mollusc and botanical specimens that represent Te Papa's important collections.

From photographs of huia and kākāpō to vivid x-rays of fish, gloriously coloured moths and butterflies, unique mosses, and lichens collected in Antarctica, this outstanding book pays tribute to the glories of our natural world.

Ussher captures the remarkable colours of the collection using a soft light and a maximum depth of field - ensuring that we see all the hidden shadows and beauty of each specimen.

Beyond the flora and fauna, Ussher has also created a visual time capsule of collecting itself. The old labels, with original antique copperplate inscriptions, and the most stunning handwriting are included.

Each photograph includes a small description including it's scientific name, common name and a few sentences about it.

At the back of the book, the curators of the collection expand on the specimens more. This makes the book not only an impressive photography book, but a great reference one too. The curators offer insights into the collections that they manage, and are a joy to read. It's not dry history or boring technical facts here, but rather people sharing their passion for these important pieces of our collective history.

Of course, a book is much more than it's content and Nature - Stilled shows off some of the more hidden aspects of publishing. The design of the book is simply perfect - as Ussher says in her closing notes the "uniformity of background and tone" makes the book sing. So too does the genius idea of designer Arch MacDonnell who created a colour wheel from the tones in the photographs to aid with sequencing the images. You might not pick it up at the start, which one could argue is the benchmark of good design - so subtle and intuitive it's barely noticeable.

This is a book that demands that tactile connection. It sits on our coffee table and it is consistently the book that is picked up and swooned over. People are drawn to the book, flicking through each page and caressing each photograph.

I often find my six-year-old diving in at random and carefully placing one of the two ribbons to mark her favourite photograph. The ribbons change almost every day.

It's a book you can dive in and out of, letting the glossy pages fall open at random. Each turn of the page takes your breath away. They are quite haunting, offering a glimpse at species we both know and see each day, and those that no longer live.

Ussher, and the Te Papa Press team, have created a true treasure, bringing these pieces of history out into the light. I hope more of the treasures hidden away within Te Papa, and other establishments, are given the same treatment.

Reviewed by: Rebekah Lyell

Te Papa Press, RRP $70.


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