Lifetime of photography lands National Geographic feature for E-team associate

November 2nd 2015
Michael Kern's striking portrait of iguana eyes hangs in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Turning a hobby into a career

After 25 successful years as a technology consultant, Michael Kern walked away to pursue wildlife and conservation photography ... in Uganda, of all places. How he arrived at that chapter of his life will surprise you just as much as it surprised him!

Michael Kern as a young boy, posing with a gopher snake

When Michael was just 10 years old, his father, an avid photographer, took a photo of him with a common gopher snake in the backyard of their Louisiana home. The portrait shows a calm young man with a long, thin snake curled around his neck, its forked tongue fully extended.

That black-and-white portrait made a great impression on Michael’s sons, who requested pet snakes of their own. Michael wasn’t the photography-devotee his father was, but the pet shop animals inspired him to tool around with a simple Kodak Instamatic camera. Years after that first portrait, Michael found he had a knack for wildlife photography with a particular passion for reptiles.


 A tree frog contemplates its own reflection


Michael’s big break came when his photo won the grand prize in a photo contest hosted by a reptile pet supply company. This landed him a trip to Uganda to photograph reptiles in the wild. Friendships he made there led him to Madagascar, where he spent an entire month searching for new species of geckos with a team of scientists. After another lizard-seeking tour, this time in New Caledonia, he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue photography full time.


The survival of the giant leaf-tailed gecko, endemic to Madagascar, is threatened by deforestation

Wildlife Conservation

After returning from these far-flung expeditions, Michael turned his attention to aiding the cause of those creatures he loved in his youth—mainly reptiles, amphibians, birds of prey, invertebrates and other creatures that were ever-present but usually ignored. Where others saw common creatures or creepy-crawlies, Michael saw amazing colors, textures and lines. His new purpose was to raise awareness about these underappreciated creatures and conserve wildlife through art.



The iridescent plumage of the tropical Nicobar Pigeon takes center stage in this abstract image 

The Eye of the Beholder

The “aha!” moment came as Michael was creating a letterhead for his new photography business. To help people focus on the beauty within these beasts, he zoomed in closely on the eye of an iguana. Taking this idea even further, he used photo-editing software to create a mirror image. The result was a surreal pattern of green-blue scales surrounding a haunting gaze. That very first abstract image now hangs in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. 


Focusing on the unique physical aspects of misunderstood creatures, like this arachnid, opens viewers to appreciation instead of fear

Abstract Beauty

Over time, Michael’s work evolved into what he calls “abstract reality” artwork. Viewing the world through a kaleidoscopic lens, Michael blends elements of fine art, nature photography and digital manipulation to achieve unique and intimate portraits of these animals.  

His body of work, much of which is on his website,, caught the attention of National Geographic Magazine. Most photographers can only dream of working with National Geographic, so it’s a fantastic achievement for the magazine to feature a lush 10-page spread of Michael’s work. Of this honor, he says, “I feel being recognized by National Geographic validates the years I’ve spent on this journey.  Although it was an untraditional path,  I just continued doing what I felt was original, impactful and meaningful.”

You can view the full article on National Geographic’s website here: “Abstraction Finds Beauty in Beasts” by Michael D. Kern.


The stunning view from Essex property Fox Plaza in San Francisco, as interpreted by Michael Kern's kaleidoscopic perspective

What’s Next at Essex

After ten years as a nature photographer, Michael began a new adventure as the Advanced Visual Technology Lead on the marketing team at Essex. In this role, he ensures that the unique architecture of each community is captured for everyone to appreciate. If you’ve ever visited, you’ve likely seen his handiwork.

While each community is a masterpiece, Michael can’t help but view the world in abstract. He’s even begun transforming photos of Essex communities into beautiful abstract works of art. 


View more of Michael Kern’s photography on his website: The Gardens of Eden, Photography by Michael D. Kern

Check out the incredible images in National Geographic: Abstraction Finds Beauty in Beasts, National Geographic

Local news takes notice: Beauty in the Beast, Palo Alto Online