I first found the work of Mark Laita when the series Created Equal (2009) was featured on BoingBoing.net back in February. A series of diptychs compare and contrast different classes and walks of life, with controversial consequences; the middle-class polygamists compared with a pimp and his women, a Baptist churchgoer shown alongside a white supremacist, a group of clergymen shown beside Klu Klux Klan members, and so on. While the images are beautifully executed on large-format black-and-white film, I find they say more about the photographer's opinions of the subjects than the comparisons themselves.
The series Nature (1994-2000) continues the theme of pairings, this time showing animals (insects, lizards) with the plant life they typically are associated with. In colour this time, the series is again well-executed in a fine-art style. The choice of lighting is almost identical to the Created Equal series, also: a large, soft key light from the side, with the background graduated so that the lit side of the subject is against black, and the shadow side against a lit, mottled studio backdrop.
Amaranthine (2005-8) is another series of formal photographs, this time on black, of taxidermied birds. Described on Laita's site as "a study of the rare occurrence of beauty and death found in ornithological specimens", he selects specimens with particularly rich hues and colours - or does he? While some images are quite deliberate (as in Songbirds and 38 Buntings, where the specimens are arranged in a colour spectrum), these brilliant colours are present in every detail, accented by the photographer's choice of soft low-key lighting.
The use of low-key lighting to illustrate animal life continues with the series Sea (to be published 2011), though the animals, sea life in this case, are alive. The sea-creatures are suspended mid-curve, the delicate shapes of their bodies frozen. Many of the images, interestingly, show the water-line, showing a distorted and dappled reflection of the fish, somewhat reminding us of both the scale and the process through which the images were made (with the interesting exception of Humpback Algerfish, the lack of a waterline making the creature's jaws seem immense and dangerous).
In review, Laita's work is dramatic, beautifully executed, and really appeals to my own preference of straight, formalist photography.