September 26, 2014

Beautiful things: Still life photographs using Burke specimens & objects

When Dennis Wise and Malina Lopez wanted to use Burke Museum collections in their work, they weren’t interested in objects or specimens for the “usual” reasons.

Often, the people who use Burke collections are scientists and scholars. But for Wise and Lopez, a photographer and food stylist respectively, using Burke collections was all about getting creative and helping people see objects and specimens in new ways.

Natural history specimens make unexpected appearances in this beautiful series of still life
photographs. Keep reading for more images and the lists of specimens within them.

Photograph: Dennis Wise; styling: Malina Lopez

“I’m a creative person,” says Lopez, “but I’d never even considered drawing on the collections of museums until I started working with Dennis, who has done some photography for the museum. And then as I got into it, it was like, of course! Natural and cultural objects are so interesting to the eye that people want to keep looking at them.”

Wise and Lopez were both interested in collaborating around a series of photographs that imitated the visual aesthetics of still life paintings from the 1600–1800s, particularly those of the Dutch masters.

“Old still life paintings have such a rich tradition of drawing on things like flowers that we commonly associate with beauty but also on objects that are in the vein of natural history—various types of animals, pelts, pinned bugs,” Wise says. “The paintings tend to really play with darkness and light, and often you have to look really closely to truly see everything that’s contained within the scene.”

Wise, who frequently photographs events at the Burke, approached several people at the museum about loaning specimens for artistic purposes, and then he and Lopez spent a day arranging and photographing still life scenes using all-natural light.

The results are stunning, and do indeed hold the eye’s attention.

Below, you can see the five images Wise and Lopez composed and, for reference, a listing of the specimens and objects from Burke collections that appear within them. (Objects not identified are from Lopez’s own collection of props.)

Photograph: Dennis Wise; styling: Malina Lopez
  • Brown-headed cowbird wing
  • Scallop shells
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Brown-headed cowbird egg and the eggs and nest of an American Robin
  • Calcite

Photograph: Dennis Wise; styling: Malina Lopez
  • Yellow-pine chipmunk
  • Scallop shell
  • Coral
  • Juvenile walrus tusk
  • Horse hair
  • Sheep skull
  • Pheasant feathers
  • American alligator head
  • Hawksbill turtle shell
  • Calcite

Photograph: Dennis Wise; styling: Malina Lopez
  • Wood-boring and other beetles from Madagascar and Southeast Asia
  • Red-tailed hawk feather
  • Sperm whale tooth
  • Quartz geode

Photograph: Dennis Wise; styling: Malina Lopez
  • Walrus baculum
  • Bullock's oriole
  • Gorgonian coral
  • Aragonite
  • Celestine
  • Sperm whale tooth
  • Polar bear mandibles
  • Bullock's oriole wing

Photograph: Dennis Wise; styling: Malina Lopez
  • Conch shell
  • Juvenile walrus tusk
  • Horse hair
  • American robin
  • Aragonite
  • Bone tool with sinew wrapping (broken)


An Artistic Perspective

Artists use museum collections more often than you might think.

For instance, scientific illustrators frequently use museum specimens to get a sense for the “accurate ideal” of a species. And in the Imagine That exhibit (closing Oct. 26, 2014), several examples illustrate how different artists have been inspired by our collections, including Jenn Lee Dixon’s Fossil Tree, part of the Witness Trees in Ballard.

Beginning Oct. 11, 2014, some of the Burke’s artifacts and specimens will also be part of the Ann Hamilton’s museum-wide takeover of the Henry Art Gallery. The show, Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E, runs from October 2014 into April 2015.

As these artists and other remind us, science and art are both tools we use to explore our world and understand what it means to be human. And the Burke has a long tradition of being a place where art and science can meet.

If you are an artist interested in visiting one of the Burke collections, please get in touch with the collection manager of the research division you would like to see.

By Andrea Michelbach, Communications

Dennis Wise specializes in a variety of fashion, lifestyle and portrait photography and is based out of Seattle. He often photographs family day events at the Burke, such as Dino Day. You can view more of his work on his website:

Malina Lopez is a Seattle-based food and prop stylist who worked as a chef for over 25 years. You can view more of her work on her website: