Sunday, February 28, 2010


We're on the cusp of March; today's the final afternoon of February, it's "spring" break at Northern Michigan University, and it's been snowing for the past few days. I decided to check up on the January Does yesterday, and made the mistake of trudging through the bog without wearing my snowshoes. At times, in places where the snow had piled in deep drifts, I'd sink in past my knees. It made me wonder how the deer deal with such things; do they know where the snowdrifts are, and learn to avoid them? Coyotes take advantage of deer stuck in deep snow, and deer, with their small, pointy feet, can't exactly float atop the snow like the naturally-snowshoed lynx.

Anyway, First January Deer was almost completely buried, once more. Only a handful of her ribs protruded from the freshly-fallen snow:

The skeleton looked ever-smaller. This time, no crow and coyote tracks were to be seen. Perhaps the scavengers have salvaged as much as they can from the bones.

It snowed more overnight; will the skeleton of First January Deer be completely buried? I look forward to rediscovering her in the spring, after the snow has started to melt. Unfortunately, here in Marquette, spring won't happen for another few months. The big thaw, I've found, seems to occur in mid- to late-April, but it has snowed as late as May.

The snow is still falling today, and as it falls, my goal of finding more deceased animals to photograph over spring break is erased. People have suggested searching the sides of the highway, but the snowplows obliterate everything on the shoulder of the road. I will continue to search, though, in hopes of discovering more useless creatures.

In other news, 360 Main Street is featuring a short photo essay by me, accompanied by a handful of my photos! Check it out here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deer Feet (Or: It's Hard to Find Dead Animals in the Winter)

I've wanted to update this blog at least once a week (twice a week is better!) but sometimes, life gets in the way and you have to move to a different apartment with a five-day notice. I wasn't able to get outside at all this past week to photograph anything, and even if I had, I probably wouldn't have found any dead creatures. It's challenging to do this project in the winter: between it snowing and animals not wanting to move around much, dead creatures are pretty scarce! Which, you know, is good for the animals but tough for me when I'm doing this project both for Senior Show and for a portfolio in my Photography BFA Seminar course. I did take some photographs today, but I'll do an entry about them at a later date... maybe in a few months.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, a classmate pointed me in the direction of a "dead animal" at the trailhead of the Forestville Basin area, so Steph and I decided to investigate. What we found was the flayed skin of a deer (looking much like how April Deer appeared) with its legs attached. Scattered along the trail were shards of the ribcage, presumably the result of the trail grooming machine hitting the skeleton. There wasn't much for me to work with, so I focused on photographing one of the deer's feet: its hooves were so perfect, and the fur was so soft.

How often do you really get to see the underside of a deer's foot? It was pretty amazing to see how worn the hooves were, and I never really realized that the dew hooves are so pointy.

The deer in Marquette have much thicker winter coats than the deer downstate -- and for obvious reasons. This particular individual (I'll never know if it was a doe or a buck) had very thick, soft fur.

I visited the same site a week later, and what was left of the body was barely visible beneath a recent snow.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Artist's Statement

The following will be handed in tomorrow as a first draft. I'm not entirely sold on it, primarily because of its length (a much shorter version will accompany my work for senior show). It also doesn't really deal with the visual structures of my work -- more the social thoughts behind it. Take a read, tell me what you think. Most of the second paragraph is probably unnecessary (as well as opinionated). Anyway, a good start? Garbage? There's only so much I can cram into a brief artist's statement:

It is a standard in our society today to shun the dead bodies of non-human, non-domesticated animals. These corpses are viewed as disgusting, offensive, repulsive, and useless things. Children are told to avert their eyes from the deceased creatures they might happen across; the many species of animals hit by cars on the highway are desensitized into the catch-all term of road kill; even the bodies of animals found in nature are sometimes doomed to be thrown away by misguided citizens who believe they are cleaning trash from the environment.

The fact is, dead animals are not disgusting, nor should they be considered offensive. Their bodies are vital to the survival of the ecosystem of which they are a part. Take, for example, the deer: she died in January, a victim of the harsh winter. Almost immediately, the coyotes find her body and gorge themselves, as they, too, are very hungry. Arriving next are the raccoons, foxes, and mink; even a bald eagle might help itself to the available flesh. So too will the crows and ravens, who pick at even the smallest scraps of meat. Porcupines, squirrels, and mice gnaw at the skeleton for needed calcium, and chickadees and woodpeckers cling to the bones and scavenge for nutrient-rich suet. When the air warms and insects awake from their wintertime torpor, burying beetles and flies flock to what is left of the body, where they lay their eggs. Their larvae dine on the very last of the remaining marrow and connective tissues, leaving behind a pile of disarticulated bones. The skeleton will eventually dissolve, returning at last to the soil.

The entire process is, in itself, beautiful. It is a ritual that has been perfected by nature, where nothing is wasted. The death of an animal in its environment, while perhaps painful and tragic for that particular being, is absolutely vital to countless other creatures living in that same ecosystem.

When I encounter a dead animal, it gives me pause. I consider the animal, its life, and how it might have died, but I also consider how many other animals have depended upon the body, and how many more will in the coming days and months. As I reflect upon this deceased creature and its place in the ecosystem, I photograph it. I regard each dead animal I find as an individual, and therefore I treat it as such. I choose to photograph these animals respectfully, portraying them as the dignified creatures they are, in life. These animals, in every stage of their decay, are beautiful if not interesting, and I try to represent that through my photography. It is my mission to sway the overwhelming public opinion of these dead animals: they are not offensive, they are not repulsive, and they are not useless creatures.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Gut Reactions

I've got another entry in mind, as suggested by Stephanie, but I need to do a little more research before I post anything. In the meantime, I will present two photographs: one quite old (2005), and another from this past November. They are similar but at the same time evoke very different reactions, and for a number of reasons.

The first picture is of a domestic cat skull, photographed exactly as it was found. The second picture is November Raccoon. It is, simply, a very old raccoon skull, gnawed so much it is almost unrecognizable.

Now, there are some obvious differences between these two photographs: one is in color, the other, black and white; the compositions are quite unalike (I'll go so far as to say I like the composition in the older photograph better); the skulls are in varying positions; the skulls are of two entirely different animals. The last point is the one I want to focus on for the sake of this entry. The Useless Creatures project is a series based entirely on the photography of dead wild animals, and that choice is made for reasons I want to begin to discuss here.

To start, let's examine the first photograph, the one of the lonesome cat skull. I should mention that, as was the case with November Raccoon, there were no other bones in sight. Also like November Raccoon, the cat skull was essentially toothless and had obviously been sitting there for quite some time. Yet why -- composition and lack of color aside -- does the photograph of the cat skull stir up such different emotions in me? When I look at the first photograph, there are a few different feelings that arise.

Firstly, I have never liked the appearance of the domestic cat skull: its orbits are too large and forward-facing, its teeth (when present) look too small and sharp. I was actually quite afraid of cat skulls when I was a child -- and so this photograph gives off an eerie quality for me. It's not scary, per se, but it is creepy.

Secondly, this is a cat skull. I'll never know whether it was someone's beloved pet or a homeless, feral animal, but its life story, for me, does not change the fact that this skull belongs to a cat who is now dead. I'm a cat person -- that is, I adore cats. Before I started the Useless Creatures project, I'd see a picture of a cat skull or skeleton, and I'd become quite sad -- and I still do, to an extent, even if I never personally knew the animal. I think of the cats I've had as pets, and the ones who have died, and how we've buried them -- would I be able to stand to look at their skulls? Probably not. So for me -- and for most viewers, I might imagine -- the photograph of the cat skull does make me a little bit sad, and there's certainly this feeling of loneliness that accompanies it. (This feeling, though, is multiplied quite a bit through the composition and use of black and white. If I come across another cat skull, I'll re-shoot it in the same way I photographed November Raccoon and try this experiment again.)

Let's move on to the skull of November Raccoon. For me -- and I might imagine, for most other viewers -- this skull does not stir up feelings of sadness or eeriness. It's a raccoon skull, belonging to a wild animal that died many years ago, of who knows what. It has no significance or meaning in society, other than something that should not be looked at or touched. If it carries any connotations, it's that of revulsion. Of course, that's not my intention, and I'd like this project to eventually reverse those kinds of feelings, but that is how society tends to view the remains of dead animals -- especially "varmints" like the raccoon. After all, raccoons carry rabies. They get into your trash. They pile up on the highway shoulders, dead. Society may romanticize raccoons in children's books and rustic, woodsy art, but when presented with the real thing (or the real dead thing), many people tend to have a completely different opinion.

Again, the composition of November Raccoon is very unalike that of the cat skull. Since cat skeletons are hard to come by, perhaps I'll photograph a raccoon skull and model the composition after the photograph of the cat skull. Would different emotions arise?

Anyway, I know this entry is a bit disjointed, but I want to get these thoughts out there. What is the difference between a raccoon skull and a cat skull? Is our perception of them rooted in our upbringing, life experiences, and what society tells us to believe? Can these thoughts be reversed? Can we feel remorse for the raccoon as well? Conversely, can we be indifferent to the cat, if it's an animal we never knew?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The January Does

On the 9th of January, I took a snowshoe through the Presque Isle bog. It was my birthday, and it was beautiful and sunny, and I had wanted to get outside and see what I could find. Truth be told, I was searching for shed deer antlers, as they generally start to drop in January (I'm still not sure if the deer in Marquette have started to shed their antlers; I have yet to find a shed but I have yet to see an antlered deer since November. Lately, all I've seen are, presumably, does). As I was crossing through the grassy (and currently snow-covered) area of the bog, something caught my eye -- and I knew what it was right away.

It was the jaw of a deer, resting atop the snow. It was peculiar, sitting there by itself -- and I retrieved it. A few feet away, I soon found what I recognized to be the very tips of a ribcage poking through the snow. I resisted digging them up right then; instead I circled the area, and about twenty-five feet away, I discovered the leg of the deer, reduced bone. Returning to the ribs, I started to uncover them, finding the entire ribcage attached to most of the spine, and at the end -- the skull. The skeleton of First January Deer belonged to a doe.

Unearthed, the skeleton was quite unattractive, encrusted with snow and ice. It still baffles me as to how the skull was several inches under the snow and yet the jaw was resting on top. After taking many pictures, I moved on, and soon found the other half of her spine, pelvis and a single leg attached. These bones, too, had been picked clean.

After completing a loop through the bog, I snowshoed closer inland, toward the road that circles the island. It was then that I found Second January Deer. The skeleton was at the base of a tree, most of the ribcage protruding through the snow, half of the skull showing, as well.

All around the skeleton were the tracks and wing-prints of the animals that had been here first. I dug up the skull, and found that it, too, belonged to a doe.

In the weeks that have passed since I initially found these two skeletons, I have visited them many times. Each time I visit, I see something new -- new tracks, new snow, new parts of the skeleton I didn't see before. The amount of snow obscuring the bones constantly fluctuates. The first few sets of photographs I took greatly displeased me and I decided I'd continue to photograph the skeletons until I produced pictures that I truly liked.

About two and a half weeks after I'd found the January Does, I finally made some satisfactory photographs. It had snowed, and the skeleton of First January Deer was partially obscured again. Her body was no longer surrounded by my snowshoe tracks, instead the only signs nearby were that of the coyotes, mink, and crows who were depending upon her to survive the winter. I photographed the skeleton slowly and deliberately, now quite familiar and comfortable with it.

I returned again, less than a week later, and even more snow obscured the skeleton of First January Deer. Her skull was almost completely covered.

The same day I paid a visit to Second January Deer; her skeleton hadn't changed much, but I did find her lower jaw, and a week earlier I had found the second half of her skeleton, close by but covered by snow and ice. It was interesting to me that her ribcage still had a good deal of stringy muscle hanging from it, but the skeleton of First January Deer was almost completely clean. Perhaps the second skeleton, being in such a close proximity to the road, deters larger animals from visiting? Still, the wildlife on Presque Isle seems to be quite used to the human presence there.

Having constant access to these two skeletons has been very important for me. As the snow falls and melts, I have been able to observe many changes to the bodies, and I've been able to see the tracks of the animals that have been feeding on them. I have also been able to photograph the skeletons as often as I like, taking as much time as I like. It's greatly improved my photography in just as little as a month! Having these deer there to come back to every weekend allows me to experiment with different angles and compositions, things I might not try when coming upon a dead animal that I'll most likely see only once. I've become very familiar with these skeletons, especially that of First January Deer, and she's grown on me considerably.

So far no one has moved the skeletons. I'm not afraid of that happening in the winter, when hardly anyone visits the bog, but come spring when the snow melts, there's a chance they might be removed and suffer the same fate as April Deer. Until that happens, though, I'll continue to visit them and photograph them weekly.

This week, First January Deer's skeleton was unburied once more, and surrounded by many crow tracks. As I investigated the scene, four does watched cautiously.