Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: one last look at The Age of Dinosaurs: A Photographic Record

A final airing for Jane Burton's glorious photographs, with a little 1980s nuttiness along the way! In case you've missed them, check out part 1 and part 2, too.

While this book is really all about the photography (of course), there are a small number of illustrations in the opening chapter which, to be honest, aren't really much to write home about. However, at least one is amusing in that it appears to be a lesson in the science of reconstructing extinct animals, as intended for pre-Dino Renaissance palaeoartists.
  1. Start with a thorough, modern skeletal reconstruction.
  2. Carefully apply musculature, based on knowledge of the skeleton and comparisons with living animals.
  3. Ignore all that shit and just draw something that basically resembles what you think the animal in question should look like. Dinosaurs were pathetic evolutionary dead-ends, so be sure to give them spindly limbs incapable of carrying their comically ponderous bulk.

For crying out loud, the skeletal reconstruction won't fit inside the life restoration, never mind the muscular reconstruction. What was the artist (Alan Male, if you were wondering) thinking? At least the hadrosaur is waving hello, albeit while delivering a rather withering look from its not-entirely-in-proportion face.

Back to the photography...we're safe there. In spite of the book's title, a lot of the best photographs actually feature Palaeozoic animals, going back as far as the Carboniferous (yes, the title of this blog series is revealed to be a swizz once again). This study of the minor celebrity and Permian synapsid Dimetrodon is very lovely; a moody depiction of the ever-popular creature rising at dawn, complete with a layer of fog to add that desired element of primordial mystery. The composition and lighting are excellent, and really draw attention to the animal's most famous feature.

Although it's somewhat less convincing overall (the waves in the background photograph make the animals look like the miniatures that they are), the models in this shot of Tanystropheus and Nothosaurus are still wonderful. The eye is drawn immediately to the two sparring nothosaurs in the centre of the scene, flashing their teeth at one another; once again, it creates a sense of the everyday drama of these animals' lives without resorting to over-the-top action and/or motion blur. The careful way that the models have been arranged helps enhance the feel that this is a casual snapshot of real creatures - it's just a shame about the backdrop...

While the main subject of the image below is the therapsid Lycaenops (depicted with very fetching stripy green skin), it's hard to avoid being drawn to the hulking brown brute behind it - what could it be? In fact, it's a rather odd-looking reconstruction of Pareiasaurus, which was closely related to the more popularly known Scutosaurus, and would have looked pretty similar. Still, I love the way that the fanged carnivore is made to look a pipsqueak by the bulky herbivore - it's good to see a pareiasaur standing its ground. Dougal Dixon would like to remind us, however, that
"[Lycaenops] has nothing to fear from the great plant-eater which it could easily kill if it were hungry."
Yeah, whatever, Dougal.

This scene, depicting a Cynognathus family group, is effective for similar reasons to the Dimetrodon picture - it's superbly and evocatively lit (but hasn't scanned well, for which I can only apologise), and while portraying the animals in near-silhouette may seem like a bit of a cop-out, closer inspection reveals that a lot of fine details have been put into the models. The poses are very well observed, too, particularly the juvenile raising its head as if begging for food from its mother.

Dougal Dixon posits that Lystrosaurus, the dicynodont famous for enjoying a global hegemony in the Early Triassic that would make Rupert Murdoch furious with envy, lived an amphibious lifestyle like a modern hippopotamus. Exactly how well-supported this idea is these days I'm not sure, but I have the feeling the answer is 'not very' (readers should feel free to enlighten me!). Regardless, the photo is quite well done, if a little uninteresting. You know, someone really ought to animate its stumpy limbs paddling along, and then we can all stare at it a while listening to a suitable musical accompaniment. of the best photos in the book. The Longisquama model is a marvel - packed with extremely fine detail, gloriously painted and shot in pin-sharp focus. These days, Longisquama is best known as the prime candidate for the ancestor of birds, something that Dougal Dixon very presciently mentions:
"It is thought that these specialised scales [on its back] represent an early stage in the evolution of feathers, and so this line of animals could possibly have developed into birds."
Genius. Of course, you do have to ignore all the evidence supporting a dinosaurian origin for the birds, including skeletal, integumentary and even behavioural links in sufficient stacks of specimens to fill the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But that's easily done with a bit of harumphing and moving of goalposts, so that's OK.

And with that cheap shot out of the way, I'm all done! Don't worry - the recycling of books ends here, as I'm being loaned some all new tomes via the magic of the mail by a very kind reader. Stick around! Pretty please.


  1. "This study of the minor celebrity and Permian synapsid Dimetrodon is very lovely;"

    The Dimetrodon is both 1 of my favorites for its realism (I think the holes its sail make it look especially life-like) & 1 of Burton photos from the aforementioned issue of "Ranger Rick" (Seriously, am I the only 1 who remembers that?).

  2. Laughed so much during this one. One of the funniest VDA posts yet (IMO)!

  3. Thankyou. I will now not be able to see anything other than a Lystrosaurus head whenever I see Rupert Murdoch on TV.

    I can't believe that I'm going to stick up for Dougie the Dixter (or whatever we're calling him now) but wasn't the idea that the pennaceous elements on Longisquama might represent an early stage in the formation of feathers, something that was still being seriously considered by at least some palaeontologists when this book was written?

    1. I wasn't really intending to take aim at him - I mean, he's changed his views since. It was supposed to be a rather ubsubtle dig at someone else...

    2. Ah, sorry. I did get the jab at Lucky Feducciano and his banditos but I thought there was also some splash damage for Dinosaur Doug.

      I recall that George Olshevsky (back in the '80s/'90s) also thought that Longisquama was an early archosaur (and possibly dinosaur), and that it was one of the first stages on the evolutionary path to birds, but has never formally published on this. Does anyone know if he still holds this view?


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