Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Scene From 1934

I've been a photographer for quite some time, but I've been an appreciator of vintage photography for over a decade, as well. It's partially a result of my past hobby of collecting old cameras, but this passion really came to fruition several summers ago, when I worked a job in the graphic division at the University of Michigan Clements Library. There, I handled thousands of photographs, their dates spanning from the 1850s through the 1970s. Most of the photography collection at the Clements Library is vernacular photography – that is, photographs taken by everyday people of everyday places. I find vernacular photography to be some of the most interesting photography out there.

Despite its current popularity, dead animal photography is nothing new. Taxidermy was a popular photographic subject, especially that of exotic, unusual animals on display in museums. Sometimes, though, more bizarre photographs will surface, and they really can't be explained:

 I recently purchased this photograph. It combines several of my favorite things: vernacular photography, Michigan, taxidermy, and deer. It was developed (and likely shot) in Detroit, Michigan; the back of the photograph is stamped March 14, 1934 by the processor ("Eastman Kodak Stores, Detroit"). It's hard to see in the scan, but the sign propped up against the larger deer reads "KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF."

For the time when this photograph was taken, and even by today's standards, the deer were mounted extraordinarily well. It's interesting to note that the buck on the right seems to have piebald coloration on his legs – perhaps that was why he was mounted in full, as his antlers are a bit short of impressive.

Of course, there is no other information attached to this photograph, which leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Why were the deer outside, in a neighborhood yard? Who was the photographer, and did these deer belong to him or her? Why was the photograph taken? What state is this neighborhood in now? What happened to the deer?

What I love about this photograph is that it's something that could have been taken yesterday. It's so absurd, so surreal, and yet it's somehow very contemporary in nature.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tales of Coyote Trickery

Note: This entry has some photographs and imagery that is a touch more gruesome than Useless Creatures' regular fare.

The manufactured snarl of a coyote, University of Michigan
Museum of Natural History. June 22, 2011.
In doing this project, I have found myself in many places, from busy roadsides to deep within the forest; from quiet museum storerooms to the bloodied floor of a wild game butcher shop. What started simply as documentation of the dead and their eventual decay has branched into a many-headed beast, and I find it incredible where I am now, as opposed to over two years ago, when I first started this body of work. One road that I have found and followed is that of skinning and tanning, and it's proven to be a very interesting and rewarding path. It has educated me on the inner workings of animals – what lies beneath the fur and skin – as well as helped me to understand some more traditional skills.

Deer legs aside, I haven't skinned very many animals. They have all been traffic casualties, roadkill retrieved in the nick of time, before decay could set in. The first was a chipmunk, and then a fox squirrel, in Ann Arbor, and the third was a skunk – not exactly the best animal to skin, as a novice, but somehow everything went better than expected. I slowly worked up to a young raccoon, and then came the true challenge: a coyote.

There are many legends and folklore surrounding Coyote: he is a prankster, a god, a nymphomaniac, a shape-shifter, a hero, a wild spirit. Coyotes are tricksters, both in life and, as I have discovered, in death.

My odyssey with Coyote began sometime in October. It was morning and I was driving north on US 41, headed into town for work, when I saw something large and dead in the center lane. My first thought was gray fox, and a large one at that – or perhaps, a small coyote. My instinct said to turn around, work be damned, and check it out, but I second-guessed myself, and called Steph instead. She encouraged me to go back, and so I did. I parked on a side street, and began the conspicuous, grueling walk along the highway, cars whipping by, people staring. I reached the animal, and it became clear that it wasn't a large fox, or a small coyote – it was a very large, very healthy-looking coyote. It was perfect: no visible roadburn, no entrails, just an arc of blood on the pavement. I lifted the body in my arms, surprised by its immense weight, then watched in horror as its head fell back, spraying my jeans with blood.

I tried walking down the side of the highway, coyote in my arms, cringing with every step. Somehow, despite all the blood that was leaking on me, the body became heavier. I couldn't take it any more; I left the coyote and returned to my car, heading home for a new pair of pants. But Steph convinced me to return, and so I did, this time, more prepared. I parked again, and instead of picking up the body, I simply dragged it by its tail, through the grass. Ignoring the stares from passing traffic, I reached my car at last, hefted the coyote up to the waiting garbage bag – and blood, again, on a fresh pair of pants.

With a coyote in my car and blood on my pants, I arrived at work, then discreetly made my exit when Steph came by to pick up the coyote – as well as hand me yet another clean pair of jeans.

Skinning wouldn't happen for another few weeks, so the coyote stayed in our chest freezer. We quickly found out it was a female coyote, and she weighed in at more than 35 pounds. Prior to skinning the body, I let it thaw... and thaw... and thaw. By the time I made the first cut, her limbs were still frozen, and it made the skinning process awkward and tedious. I don't know how long I was outside, skinning that coyote, but it was dark when I finished, and I had to use a head lamp for the very last bit. Her pelt went in the kitchen freezer, and her carcass returned to the chest freezer.

I've found that I don't take very many photographs of the animals I skin. There have been a few exceptions, but this coyote wasn't one of them. I have no photos of her, prior to the skinning process; I have some pictures of me skinning her, and I have some after-skinning shots of her face, but that's it. By the time I got around to skinning her, a lot of blood had leaked from her ears and mouth, and had congealed around her head. She wasn't very photogenic, but I do regret not photographing her.

In the days after I skinned the coyote, her scent lingered on my coat and shoes. Some dogs flocked to me, much to their owners' displeasure and embarrassment; other dogs cowered, unsure of the coyote odor and what it meant.

At some point in early November, I removed the skinned carcass from the chest freezer. I decided that it was time to let nature take its course, so Steph and I took the body into our backyard, set it behind the brush pile, and tied it to the base of a tree – dead bodies do travel, and we didn't want it to end up in a neighbor's yard! A few days passed, and then one evening, while I was cleaning the dishes and Steph was baking cookies, there was a knock on our door. It was a police officer.

He was very polite, but he explained, gravely, that there had been a report filed by our surveyor (who, we had thought, had long-since finished surveying the property). According to the cop, he had spotted what he described as a "dog, skinned alive, tortured and tied to a tree, left to die" in our backyard. Steph laughed and handed the situation over to me, which I explained, producing both my small game license* and collector's permit**. I showed the police officer the coyote's skin – still frozen – and then the carcass in our backyard. Steph had decided to cover it with brush that afternoon, but not soon enough, as the surveyor had seen it only hours beforehand.

Despite my actions being completely legal, the whole situation shook me up considerably! Thankfully, the police officer was very understanding, and complimented us on the taxidermy and skulls displayed in the living room. He understood the appeal of collecting roadkill, and knew how common it was. He relayed a story about a county commissioner from the western part of the U.P., who stirred things up in her town because she collected the skulls from roadkill animals. He bid us goodnight, but not before apologizing for interrupting our evening!

Finally, in late December, work on the coyote skin resumed. I finished fleshing it, then I salted it. The house smelled of coyote – which is a touch more tolerable than the odor of a wet dog, but not by much. At last, it was time to begin the tanning process. All of the liquid baths – the pickle, neutralizer, and tan – took place in a large Rubbermaid tub, which occupied around a fourth of our bathroom floor. The first rinse – after the three-day pickle – was a monumental one. The water ran brown from the coyote's fur; she had been filthy with blood and road grit.

After the 15-hour tanning bath finished, I rinsed the pelt one last time, and draped it over the shower curtain rod to drip-dry. The next day, the stretching process began, and now, nearly a week later, it is finally coming to a close.

Her pelt is large, measuring 51 inches from nose to tail. Her fur is thick; not quite winter fur, but close. Her back is dark, and the tip of her tail is black.

Only part of our coyote odyssey has ended, however: her other half, the carcass, is still in our backyard, currently buried beneath brush and several inches of snow. We have had coyote visitors, and they avoid the body; so has every other scavenger. Come spring, the body will smell, but hopefully, thanks to insects and bacteria, decomposition will go by fast. I will be sure to document the process with my camera.

What has Coyote taught me? She has taught me patience, first and foremost, as well as the importance of following your gut instinct. She has also instilled in me the yearning to see live coyotes, in the wild – something that I have not yet experienced. (I have had the fortune to hear them howling at dawn and dusk, though.) Lastly, Coyote, with all of her surprises and trickery, has strengthened my love and appreciation for the natural world, and the animals we share it with.

* In Michigan, a small game hunting license covers a wide variety of animals, from squirrels to coyotes. Holding this license makes retrieving roadkill legal – provided the animal is in season. Coyote season is the longest hunting season in the state, running from July through April.
** Getting a collector's permit is a complicated process; if you're looking to retrieve roadkill, I recommend going for the small game license, instead. If you've never held a hunting license before, don't forget to go through the DNR's hunter safety course!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hello, 2012!

Another year has ended, and what a year it was! Not only do I feel my photography improved vastly over the past twelve months, I also am proud of trying new things – artistically, with the camera and otherwise. I am quite pleased with the amount of decomposition-documentation I achieved in 2011, both with March Buck and Needham Opossum, and I'd like to continue that this year. I'm also very happy with how much I've learned in the past half-year concerning skinning, tanning, and taxidermy, and one of these days, I'll make a post specifically about what I've accomplished in that field.

Anyway, as I did last year, I'd like to document my favorite photographs of 2011, beginning with January and ending with December.

December Crow

January 2011: I didn't photograph any dead creatures "in the wild." However, I did document the process of creating a study mount, and I found that to be incredibly interesting (and a bit inspiring). 

February 2011: February is a tough month to find photographic subjects (and I don't just mean dead animals – February in Michigan is generally quite gray, cold, and gloomy). I did find this robin, though, and it provided a splash of color in an otherwise dreary month.

March 2011: This was by far the most productive month of the year, and I found lots of animals, both freshly-dead and as dry skeletons. March Buck was a very important find for me, as a photographic subject, and also as a project. I documented his decomposition in my parents' backyard, then cleaned his skull. It now rests atop our record player.

April 2011: I took several trips to the Mammal Division at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and one of the most interesting visits concerned the wet-preserved specimens. Though I am very happy to be back in Marquette, I do miss the museums of Ann Arbor, as they provided many photographic opportunities.

May 2011: Needham Opossum was so much fun to photograph. After initially picking him up off the road in March, I hadn't had much interest in keeping any of his bones. But as he decomposed over the weeks, I began to realize there was something special about him. His gnarly skull, pitted with holes and strange growths, is now one of my favorite skulls in my collection.

Young Robin III

June 2011: This young robin was a powerful subject for me; I saw it die when it was struck by a car, and I felt its warmth in my hands.

Portrait of a Dead Hen

July 2011: The last month living in Ann Arbor, we spent many hours traveling – to Marquette and back, to New York and back, and finally, a one-way trip to Marquette. I photographed only one dead animal, and to date, it's the only domestic animal I've photographed for this project.

August 2011: Photographing a skunk is a delicate process; skinning a skunk is even more delicate. After photographing this young female skunk, I case-skinned her. I'll make a post about it in the coming days.

September 2011: The claws of a small snapping turtle that had just been hit on the road in front of our house. The muscles in the tail were still firing, despite the turtle being very dead. This was a very sad subject for me to photograph.

October 2011: This snow bunting, a road casualty, was a new subject for me. It was a bit of a challenge to photograph.

November 2011: I have grown to love juncos. They have such subtle coloration, and it's not until you see them up-close that you can truly appreciate it. This is one of my favorite bird portraits of the year.

 December 2011: More of an abstraction than a portrait of a dead animal. The dead goldeneye was frozen solid in an awkward position; in any other situation, I might have had very little with which to work. However, the goldeneye was covered in a layer of ice crystals, which made for some very interesting compositions.

So, here we are, at the start of a new year. I hope it's a good one!