Stephanie Turner – Animal Skins, Photographic Surfaces: Taxidermy as Lens Craft

Hi, everyone I’m Stephanie Turner And I’d like to thank Joanne for arranging this conference It’s been really spectacular and a shout out to Terrence Abbott for sorting out the arrangements Where is Terrence? I want to connect a name and a face Is Terrance around? OK Well, anyway convey my thanks to Terence, and all the artists who are here, as well I’d like to begin with a question that might seem obvious at first, but that upon closer examination opens up some larger questions about dead animals as a medium for making art and the contingencies of animal representation more generally Just what is taxidermy? Obviously, it’s an animal or bird skin fitted over an armature and posed in some way traditionally to resemble the way the animal or bird appeared when alive A classic example is Carl Akeley’s Muskrat group diorama in my home state at the Milwaukee Public Museum It’s not a large scale work, as you can see here, but when Akeley created it in 1890, he was using leading edge techniques of Natural History Museum exhibition Notice, for example, Akeley’s recreation of the underwater portion of the muskrats’ habitat, which involved cutting one of the taxidermy is in half, and reassembling the two halves above and below the fabricated water line, a sheet of clear glass Another sheet of glass, that of the of the diorama case, also bisects the muskrats’ den, enabling the viewer to spy one of the animals curled up asleep Akeley pioneered taxidermy methods into the early 20th century, and his dioramas made the United States a leader in natural history museum exhibition, as can be seen in the Hall of African mammals in New York City at the AMNH Natural history taxidermy, however, has always been about more than just what humans think non-human others look like Like a great deal of animal representation, it ends up to say more about its makers than it does about the animals themselves Scholarly criticism of the ideological underpinnings of Natural History taxidermy can be traced back to Donna Haraway’s 1984 analysis of Akeley’s African mammals dioramas In that analysis, she comments on the role that taxidermy once played in gaining popular support for imperialist projects, not the least of which was memorializing, through the dead bodies of its native species, the exotic wildness of the dark continent that disappeared under various colonialist regimes Or perhaps it could be more precise to say that the exotic wildness didn’t disappear, but was rather transformed into material artifacts taken out of that continent and displayed for white Europeans elsewhere Haraway reminds us that behind every mounted animal, bronze sculpture, or photograph in a museum, lies a profusion of objects and social interactions among people and other animals, which in the end can be recomposed to tell stories about what matters to the people who killed, stole, traded in, and continue to gaze upon these objects It is that gaze and the myriad desires compelling it that most fascinates me What do we see when we look at taxidermy? Or more to the point, I should ask what are we looking for? To be sure, we are looking for signs of life Taxidermy, whether it appears in a natural history museum as a hunting trophy or in a work of art, by its very definition signifies through an aesthetic of realism Taxidermy, though, is a unique kind of animal representation within this aesthetic, a craft process that makes dead animal bodies, or parts of bodies into lifelike things What counts, at least initially, is on the surface Even the deliberately botched pieces, to borrow Steve Baker’s term, as in Deborah Sengl’s brilliant hybrid, the wolf as predator disguises himself as his prized prey, makes sense as animal representations based on their proximity to what we consider the real thing Which is to say what we think the actual animal looks like What’s remarkable about this piece is the care the artist took to reference both species of animal and virtually every part of the body, from the wolfishly growling mutton muzzle to the sheep like fluff on the doggie haunches and tail I’m no expert, but I know a wolf sheep when I see one From there however, the meanings ripple out and surfaces hint at depths In the case of Sengl’s piece, it signifies beyond the natural history register of a particular predator-prey relation Engaging the same counterfeit terms of taxidermy, itself Things aren’t what they seem this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing

We’ve been deceived In acknowledging that deception, we become in on it and being in on it intensifies our gaze In her book The Breathless Sioux, Rachel Poliquin observes that taxidermy, straddling the nature of culture opposition, requires its own aesthetic vocabulary When we look at taxidermy, we are experiencing what she describes as a visceral encounter with skin Skin is more than just a container for or surface of a living thing It is the real animal As the killer of many of the animals he made into taxidermies, Carl Akeley knew this only too well In this image, we see a standing wounded in bandage next to a Leopard he killed without a weapon, or as Haraway puts it, in hand to fang combat Had the leopard won their fight and eaten Akeley, his flush would have become, in effect, its flesh including its skin This is the visceral equation Poliquin evokes in her explanation of the authenticity of organicism that is taxidermy Regardless of whatever else it may be, taxidermy is first and last skin The only part of the animal that remains in a taxidermy, the skin, is the animal’s residual realness A contact zone as Ron Broglio, has put it a permeable medium through which the viewer imagines a palpable connection with the animal other According to art critic Rikke Hansen, skin, a border around our corporial being that is a trait we share in common with other living things becomes, in cultural terms, a kind of unfinished project in the Western effort to keep human and non-human animals separate Much like the dubious cultural purpose human skin has long served in otherizing certain racial groups within our own species If John Berger’s answer to his famous question, why look at animals is true, that in industrial societies we transform animals into spectacle as their living counterparts fade from view, then the visceral encounter with taxidermy that Poliquin observes is more powerful for us now than ever Evidence that this might be the case as can be seen in the proliferation of taxidermy photography that has been occurring among a variety of image makers Through this work, animal skins become photographic surfaces, adding layers to taxidermy’s signification The question what are we looking for when we look at taxidermy becomes all the more compelling when we consider taxidermy as a kind of lens craft I first became aware of this work at a meeting of the Society for Photographic Education where I encountered the lush digital images of a young photographer named Sara Cusimano Miles This very image is on exhibit here The Natural History Museum specimen once again figures prominently here, although in this case we see not a fully prepared taxidermy mount in a display case, but rather the skin of a juvenile deer resting on packing material in a storage area We can surmise that we are viewing a museum storage space because we can see the utilitarian metal shelf on which the skin is unfolded, accented by a row of wet specimens in glass bottles lined up on the shelf above In her Solomon’s House series of photographs of off exhibit animal objects, Miles undertakes an elaborate process involving multiple exposures of the same image, using slightly different focal points, which she then layers and stitches together in high resolution composites that extend the depth of field This layering and stitching resembles, of course, the craft of taxidermy itself, though in this image the deer skin has yet to be put through that process The effect as she describes it is to include much more photographic information in the print that was possible to record in a single image Photography of taxidermy and object’s related to taxidermy in museum storage rooms compels viewers to take stock of the preserved dead animal bodies as surplus objects in the imperialist accumulation of knowledge during the late 19th and early 20th centuries One question these objects raise is whether National Science still needs all of these animal bodies or whether their accumulation is more a matter of documenting the territories conquered and resources gained How and what do they signify now in the post-colonial era? The taxidermy objects in these images, like the bird in Lilac Breasted Roller With Kumquats, another image by Sara Miles call upon the viewer to contend with what she calls a hyper-real photographic space in which every detail is in the sharpest possible focus In this way, and through the artist’s deliberate manipulation of the dead animal objects to create a scene, they are enlivened It is as if they have a story to tell In her essay The Matter and Meaning of Museum Taxidermy, Poliquin describes this suggestiveness of taxidermy

as a provocative loquaciousness, which she also refers to as a talkative thingness of a once living animal made to look alive, as though it actually could speak In Miles’s Brown Bear, the animal is clearly an object The batting material to which the skin is attached is folded over the head, which despite his obvious thingness, could also be viewed as a living there, having been caught by the camera in the middle of a complaint about this awkward turn of events Baker concurs with Poliquin, suggesting that such is the pressing reality of the animal body and dead animal art that viewers are called upon to respond as though its agency as a living thing persisted after its death As we know from Roland Barthes the indexical nature of a photographic image creates a similar sort of pressing reality In Bart’s famous formulation, what the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once The photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially Barthes was moved to write his famous theory of photography in Camera Lucida after looking intently at a number of photographs of his recently dead mother He was trying, as he put it, to locate her essence in the images More than an act of mourning, however, Barthes’s quest led him to the realization that the photographic image is distinct from other forms of representation in that it indexes a singular object in a particular moment of time In this way, then, every photograph, he concludes, signals the return of the dead Given Barthes’ formulation of the near-miss of the photographic image to the actual thing it shows, what are we to make of the unrepeatable existentiality of a photograph of a taxidermy This is a compelling question to ask considering that historically, since techniques of taxidermy preceded those of photography, the realistic representation of taxidermied animals had a cultural function similar to a photographic sculpture To return to Baker’s comment on the residual agency of the dead animal as art object, I would argue that in photography of taxidermy, the locus for this agency lies, at least in part, in the sympathetic connection to the once living animal that the viewer experiences through the photographer’s interpretive lens, which prompts a narrative imagining its recreation and relocation Thus in Barthes’ formulation, formulation the animal object’s essence That sentence doesn’t read quite right Sorry about that In the visual economy of taxidermy, the dead animal objects invokes a consuming gaze that is both a product of our myriad relations with non-human others, as well as a reminder of the limits of those relationships Taxidermy presented through the photographic lens, extends this push me pull you narrative as the photographer’s directorial gaze overlays the realist aesthetics of the taxidermist We can see this narrative tension in Danielle Van Ark’s series The Balance of Life Here taxidermy specimens in museum storage rooms find themselves placed next to unlikely companions, as in this image of a leopard and a wolf in the midst of what appears to be a stare down with a bird and some other indefinable animals on a set of shelves The human driven forklift has brought them to this brink, and there they remain In describing her work, Van Ark emphasizes that she photographs the mounts exactly as the museum staff has left them because as she puts it the way these animals are stored haphazardly by humans results in the most moving scenes Distinct from Miles’s carefully arranged skins and still lives, Van Ark’s images capture the animal objects in a myriad of off exhibit dramas Predator and prey commingle, as in this image of [INAUDIBLE] and ungulates, conditions are crowded, agendas are mixed Indeed the term shelf life takes on a whole new meaning in these photographs The storage rooms in Van Ark’s photographs become unintentionally diorama like in the dramas they suggest, precisely because of the haphazard juxtapositions of the denizens of these backroom habitats In fact, because these storage spaces bear so little resemblance to the animals actual habitats, these interiors give rise to a new afterlife for the occupants Closed doors and cluttered passageways figure prominently in this work Here the mounted head of a water buffalo seems to contemplate a door with no visible knob The door’s window pane profile provides a glimpse of what lies beyond the door, while also reflecting the interior of the room Perhaps in some trick of light waves passing through and reflecting off of surfaces, the dead animal objects in the storage room multiply in the glass There’s a lot going on in these rooms, and it is only through the surface of the photographic image, which renders transparent

what backroom storage– what lies within backroom storage cabinets, closed doors, and jumbled work spaces have made opaque that the viewer can discern it In addition to the narrative potential of taxidermy through the photographic lens, the residual agency of the dead animal as art object also emerges from a surplus of signification associated with the lens craft of photography itself, as we’ve already seen in Sarah Cusimano Miles’s work The images made by Hiroshi Sugimoto in his diorama series, ongoing now for three decades, are an important starting point for considering the surplus For Sugimoto, the camera lens provides a one eyed portal into a particular kind of realness not possible with naked bifocal vision But what kind of realness is it? In this black and white image of a pair of ostriches preparing to protect their nest and hatchlings against an approaching group of probably hungry warthogs, what we do not see is just as important as what we do see Notice, for instance, that I did not say in this image of a diorama By not including the details of the structure containing the diorama scene, Sugimoto’s photograph seemed to resemble the actual scene that the dioramas reference Making the images in black and white rather than in color contributes further to this illusion Photographer Jamie Dormer-Durling comments that the removal of color makes the photograph look less like the thing that was photographed, a fabricated scene, and more like a genuine photograph In first encounter in the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History as a tourist, Sugimoto has become famous for his comment about making a curious discovery there The stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake Yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished and suddenly they looked very real Viewing the diorama as a camera does, he realized that however fake the subject, once photographed it’s as good as real While this seems a simple realization, in fact, these are highly crafted photographs made with large format cameras, carefully controlled lighting, and in a reversal of the quick peek of his initial encounter, exposures of up to five minutes The truest eye view of the natural history diorama arises, of course, from the viewer’s appreciation of how really fake they are, which is to say, the sincerity of their artifice That a natural history diorama would even be a subject for photography suggests the uncertainty and malleability of this realness aesthetic Such an aesthetic is an invitation to play with representational practices beyond the camera lens The precision work of photographer Lori Nix exemplifies one end of the spectrum Like Sugimoto Nix and her unnatural history series also uses analog photography to make black and white images of natural history dioramas, but that is where the similarity ends These are not real dioramas containing actual taxidermy, but rather hand crafted miniature scenes that the artist, after carefully creating arranging and lighting, then photographs with a large format camera to render every detail Ducks, the image you see here, seems a wry tribute to Akeley’s famous muskrats diorama The viewer can see avian activity both above and below the artificial water line of a pond However the odd concavity of the water’s surface implies the dubious naturalness of this natural history scene One duck lunges for a fast food snack floating just above the bottom of the pond, while nearby the partial body of another duck, its attachment hardware in plain sight, serves along with the ladder, the rag, and the incomplete backdrop, as one of many indications in this image that the diorama is very much a work in progress In North American Beaver, boxes labeled property of Mexico, a country not within North America Beavers’ range, but within the range of the North American continent, litter another diorama in progress featuring the eponymous animals surrounded by components that suggest the artifice of the undertaking Among these is a reference painting on a tiny easel to the right of the nascent woodland scene, depicting an idealized version of the scene Well, Nix’s work in the series involves the meticulous three dimensional construction of Natural History dioramas on a very small scale The end product is the black and white photograph made at just the right angle and in just the right light to create the impression of a full scale diorama, if only for the duration of a quick peek Richard Barnes is another photographer interested in showing the natural history diorama as a constructed thing containing other constructed things, all of which require maintenance Man with Buffalo shows a museum worker outfitted with shoe coverings and knee pads inside the diorama,

vacuuming the snow around a Buffalo taxidermy The viewer can clearly see the unfinished wooden and metal frame containing this Great Plains scene Tools and a workbench are within reach And so not coincidentally, is a black plastic lined trash bin, which you can see just at the very bottom of the image there Even this kind of wildlife management, it seems, requires work and involves waste, whether it be ridding in the simulated habitat of undesirable elements like invasive cobwebs, or freshening up fake foliage and repositioning bogus birds, as a worker in Desert Scene with Woman and Coyote seems to be doing In these images, the camera exposes the illusion of the natural history diorama by recording the human presence that creates and maintains them, but that, in the realist a aesthetic of the diorama, is a remarkable surplus that must remain apart In reflecting on his work in the animal logic series, Barnes engages the metaphor of the theatrical stage to describe what for him became a compelling contact zone Unexpectedly encountering a diorama under renovation, he realized that it was as if the theatrical space of the diorama had been broken down, and the seemingly impermeable membrane between the viewer and viewed, the living and the dead, was made permeable The notion of a contact zone is itself a potent metaphor that Ron Broglio in Surface Encounters Thinking with Animals and Art deploys to explore the possibilities for rethinking anthropocentric humanism in contemporary art involving animals For this photographic work is first and last, not just about natural history or its flip side, human logos, but of the permeable membrane between the two It is, in other words, about persuasive, even to borrow Poliquin’s term, loquacious surfaces In the viewing context of our gallery space with its discourses of curation, creation, and cultural critique, aesthetic taxidermy and diorama photography becomes a co constituted medium In looking at these images of faux natural history, I cannot help but notice how peopled they are, and how variously the plains and surfaces of the photographed exhibit spaces negotiate the interactions between the living viewer and the dead on view This image by Diane Fox of a wild dog exhibit at California Academy of Sciences exemplifies my point Here, the viewer sharing the vantage point of the wild dogs, enters the photograph and becomes a witness along with the two dogs to the comings and goings of museum visitors beyond the diorama The view is through a glass case as it is possible to see the light reflecting off the glass And below, in the right hand corner of the image, a bit of the frame of the case itself Despite the anchoring effect of this bit of frame, however, the boundaries of the case are not entirely clear The sandy ground on which the wild dog taxidermies stand, gives way imperceptibly to the museum floor And the heads of the taxidermied animals themselves seem to fade into the blurred silhouettes of the human museum visitors beyond them Playing with multiple vantage points and transparent surfaces, Fox’s unnatural history series of images explores the co-constitutive potential of photography by juxtaposing the artificial natural environment of the diorama with the real built environment of the museum space In her artist statement, Fox seems to echo John Berger when she comments that nature comes to us viewed through the glass windows of zoos, natural history museums, and electronic screens By deliberately referencing the loquacious surfaces of the glass exhibit cases, her photographs, in effect, create whole new dioramas for the dead animal objects on display, as they typically incorporate equally spectral images of their living human visitors reflected in the cases Another example is a porcupine family, an image made at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles In contrast to the canine blur of wild dogs, in this image the viewer can clearly make out the lone porcupine taxidermy clinging stiffly to a tree in its diorama But where are mama Papa and babies? Off to the lower right, reflected in the diorama’s glass case There the silhouettes of several human figures seem to hover above their own shadows, which create another layer of figures Still another layer of reflected silhouette, though of what is not clear, is superimposed on these human figures, which in turn are superimposed on the limbs of the tree in the diorama, bringing the eye back to the porcupine Porcupine has a pretty big family after all In the spirit of one good signification begetting another, Jason DeMarte’s photographs of cropped diorama scenes contrasted with or incorporating elements referencing commodity culture emphasize the consuming gaze that filters our view of the natural world DeMarte’s image Ambiguous Object of Desire, along with other works from his Utopic series

demonstrates his keen understanding of the complex and competing registers of the consuming gaze On the left side of this long horizontal piece, three magpies and a bald eagle in a beech diorama seem to stare pointedly at a plain blue dot superimposed on the sandy shore between them It is the same sort of brightly colored adhesive dot one would purchase by the sheet at an office supply store to use for labeling objects Items at a yard sale perhaps or cataloging one’s office at home Its appearance on the sandy shore renders the artificial habitat of the diorama a commodity object Again, as with the wild dogs in the Diane fox image, the viewer shares a compelling focal point with the taxidermies Commanding the attention of everyone, the blank blue dog nevertheless signifies nothing To drive home the point that the objects of our desirous gaze often seem to promise fulfillment, but so often being fake deliver little of real value The compelling beach scene on the left is juxtaposed on the right by an equally imposing image of a microwavable meal, consisting of fried chicken legs, corn and a brownie decorated with red, white, and blue sprinkles It doesn’t look the least bit appetizing Nestled in the partitions of a plastic tray the same bright blue as the dot, these are SATS food items, American through and through, seem unlikely to live up to their nutritional or patriotic promise According to DeMarte, he is investigating how our modern day interpretations of the natural world compare to the way we approach our immediate consumer environment What he has found however, is that the closer we come to mimicking the natural world, the further away we separate ourselves from it Many of the images in the Utopic series further emphasize this separation by referencing the surface value of consumable objects, calling into question the unnaturalness of the use, toss, repeat pattern of the American consumer culture Another image from this series, Extinct Identity, delivers a darker commentary on the consuming gaze The artist’s ubiquitous colored dots, in this piece a lurid pink that in no way corresponds with the diorama’s painted fall foliage, cover each head of a group of passenger pigeons Legendary for darkening the Midwestern skies for hours at a stretch during the 19th century westward expansion, the huge flocks seem almost infinite, and thus the birds imminently expendable By the time we realized they were not, it was too late It would be interesting to hear DeMarte’s comments on this piece, in light of the recent passenger pigeon de-extinction project, which is applying American reproductive ingenuity to bringing back the species A project that for me comes uncomfortably close to the use, toss, repeat credo of commodity culture I’m drawn to DeMarte’s work in this larger context of photographers experimenting with the natural history idiom of animal representation because it seems to me an end point along a continuum of image makers Along this continuum the artists are exploring, not just the problematic of the nature culture binary, but more importantly the necessity of a critical engagement with it, particularly in visual culture Even more particularly in visual culture that references thing culture, that mad swirl of human made stuff through which we leverage power, and thereby establish the correct view We can certainly see this kind of critical engagement in the photographs of Kara Knorr, who, in her Academies series relocates and reanimates museum taxidermy with the lavish interiors of European academies to examine the relationship between the production of Western art they’re in and the transmission and reproduction of aesthetic ideals through the museum Knorr playfully composers in titles images in the series For example, the Judgment of Paris, to question the critical gaze of European academies ideological focal points of an intellectual and aesthetic tradition that then becomes ossified in museum displays In such an environment, the uncanny liveliness of taxidermied animals intervenes and the Euro-centric narrative, creating transgressive dialogues with the art objects on display within these spaces She continues this exploration in her Fables series, though, in these images the animals interact less with the lavish interiors and more with each other Unlike the anthropomorphized animals in Fables, however, these animals are agents in their own narratives, easily occupying human cultural spaces to pursue their own non-human ends and agendas, whether it be a stroll through the queen’s bedchamber or a nap on her bed When I started my inquiry into photography of taxidermy

in dioramas, I was surprised by the variety of this work, and fascinated by how much is going on in it Richard Ross’s Museology and Gathering Light series, for example, explore the museum itself as a container of containers, as in this illuminated box full of rhinoceros at the Field Museum in Chicago, and the unintended effects of shifting light inside the built interiors of exhibit spaces as in this tableau of Deer Caught Between Spotlight and Sunbeam Stephan Sasek, on the other hand, works against the cameras potential to substantiate the realness of the diorama, Sugimoto’s trick, to illuminate its fundamental lack of depth, exposing the close corners and wide angles of the diorama’s shallow space Well, the work of some of these photographers like Sarah Cusimano Miles and Hiroshi Sugimoto explore the indexicality of natural history taxidermy and dioramas through the various techniques possible with the camera And the work of Richard Barnes Lori Nix reference the craft of the diorama to expose its artifice The work of Jason DeMarte and Kara Knorr enjoins the viewer to consider the dead animal as a sort of partner in challenging received aesthetics All, however, have in common an acute awareness of and curiosity about the surplus of signification in natural history representation featuring animal skins In closing, I’d like to return to Rachel Poliquin’s idea of the visceral experience of encountering taxidermy and see whether I can answer my opening question of what it is we are looking for when we look at taxidermy through the photographer’s lens The viscerality, if you will, of taxidermy photography is also a certain kind of visuality It is as if we are reaching out with our eyes to touch dead animal objects, or conversely receiving their touch through our eyes as 18th century scientists theorized about what happens when we view something Constance Thalken Eyes Open Slowly series of images investigates, as she puts it, the idea of animal essence and the emotional and psychological complexities that arise from reanimation is of that essence Making images at a taxidermy shop that has been in continuous operation for more than 65 years, Thalken’s photographs do you familiarize taxidermy These horn suspended on a hook essential to the animal in life allude to the missing skin It is a viewer’s task to imagine them reconnected For Thalken, taxidermy provides an intimate experience that is impossible in real life; that is heightened by the sense of loss signified by animal death a loss that, she emphasizes, we all share Would that we looked as good after death as this black Angus steer, often mistaken for a horse, as I did when I initially saw it, or felt as lovely to gaze upon Thalken’s work, too, speaks to the myriad desires compelling that gaze The diverse clientele of the shop, she notes, reflect our entanglements with animal others Prominent natural history museums the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, wealthy game hunters, international franchise steak houses, and local trophy seekers all procure mounting services from the shop Signs of life are everywhere there even in the waste, as in this image of a cast off ostrich skin Man Ray wrote in a 1934 essay called The Age of light that a photograph is a sort of residue of a singular moment Yes, this sounds a lot like Roland Bart wrote nearly 50 years later But Ray went further in a way that touches on the unique ethos of taxidermy What we see in this residue of a singular moment is an image of the survivor of that moment That is all but that is a lot No photographs of taxidermy make this clearer than those of the destroyed taxidermies in the 2008 fire in Paris’s beloved taxidermy shop Deyrolle The fire destroyed almost all of Deyrolle’s extensive collections of insects, birds, and animals leaving a charred ruin But the community rallied, raising funds and donating items from other collections And photographers like Martin d’Orgeval images of the ruined specimens with a click of the shutter render them survivors Man Ray wrote that the photographic image is like the undisturbed ashes of an object consumed by flames This to me is a sign of life we see when we look at taxidermy through the camera lens Thank you Questions

Thank you Wonderful presentation It made me reflect a little bit on how institutions have related to photography, being in natural history museums and so on, where we know that Rosamond Purcell and others really had to fight their way into the collections, and being able to interact with them And Diana Fox’s photograph really shows we’re there are now with iPhones and iPhone camera, which actually is a new way of seeing It’s an electronic seeing, and we see everything at once Right And now museums have turned around and they invite us to do selfies and all these kinds of things Right So there is just if you could just sort of talk a little bit about this remarkable shift that has happened between the institution, artist, and public Well, traditionally, the Natural History Museum space has been one in which, say artists who sketch or paint could go and do work I am not aware of a history of resistance to photographers coming in, but the photographers that I have spoken with say that the curators and collection managers welcome them into the spaces, although there need to be some limitations with regard to traffic And so they have to make those kinds of arrangements before So they are able to do this kind of like Sugimoto’s large scale five minute exposures, but that was back in the ’80s that he began doing that So yeah, a lot of photographers– it’s amazing how easy their access is to the items And Sarah Miles was pretty wowed by the attitude that she could simply arrange things to look like whatever she wanted to create little tableaus and such So there was a lot of freedom for those photographers I was also going to make a point about you wanted to talk about digital processes, and so forth It’s almost impossible to control As you say, we go into the museum environment and in fact, you know, I think I’m doing a little bit of what Steve is doing in making images to think with So when I go into natural history museum space, I too I’m photographing I want to find out what it is there is to photograph by making those images Does that answer your question? Yeah Yeah, I think so I mean it’s just an interesting development in that museums have been so protective of that work, their ownership of that work, and today they have given up Technological developments with the iPhone camera has forced the public to be present in a way that they can take away what they want with the camera Yeah Yeah, and I think natural history museums love this because they’re struggling with a problem of relevance I mean every museum has to have an IMAX show, whereas it used to be enough just to simply look at the collections without having to see a digital version of natural history Thanks for that survey I was struck by the high percentage of female photographers in your survey I wonder if that is true just across the board, and if it is I wonder– We started out today hearing about [? Messager’s ?] sort of complex, feminist, conceptual project, and you didn’t really touch on gender at all in terms of the way that female photographers might have treated the subject distinctly in terms of focus Right I’m not sure that I can say– that I can make a generalization I do notice in taxidermy practices that a lot of young women are drawn to doing taxidermy I see kind of a 50/50 in gender, in terms of photographers Sarah and Diane on the one hand; Richard Ross and Jason DeMarte on the other There might be some, to risk sounding cliche, or stereotype, some sort of affinity for the animal object Connie Thalken I think is going toward that sort of touch

sensitivity through the eyes If you compare her work with Richard Ross’ you see more of a formalistic treatment of the museum object in its space It’s an interesting question If I had time I would write about that I think that’s a very good topic to explore What you just said makes me think about the question of touch And I wanted to ask what you thought, and possibly also the other speakers thus far about the place of the absence of touch in these very tactile objects, and how the photography, of course, makes a further another layer of untouchability Right And the museum environment, which we were just discussing a moment ago, also is yet another layer with it’s do not touch signs And so I wanted to ask where the tactility of the taxidermied object fits either into an aesthetic or into a feature of what makes these photographs so powerful Right I think that the very idea that you are not allowed to touch is part of the touch aesthetic It creates that heightened awareness, and maybe a greater degree of respect for the work or something like that The animals that we borrowed for a show that I co-curated were touch me nots And it seemed very wrong to me somehow to bring those items into the exhibit space and to create that prohibition, because I would like to have that When children go to a nature center their encouragered– there’s always the box of skins that they can run their hands over It’s extremely important So we have to have that vicarious experience, and then that becomes part of the heightened sensitivity to what we’re actually looking at, which is a skin surface Or a wet specimen has that same kind of tactile attraction to it If I could respond to that I thought that the photograph that Steve showed of the young man who was nude with the fox was very much about that touch I mean, looking at that, even though it’s a photograph and you weren’t touching the fox, my first reaction was empathizing with the feeling of that fur against bare skin So I think there are ways that you can convey touch without actually physically touching them Well, and there’s also a smell component to this stuff, and so I think that’s part of the aesthetic, as well I mean I feel that when I talk to students about images, I remind them that these are smelly dead things that– there’s a revulsion factor as well as an attraction factor With road kill anyway Just maybe to follow up on that, now we’re talking about the derm, or the skin We generally, in taxidermy, are talking about a furred skin, or a feathered skin, or something that is not skin as we think of as human And in that photograph, it was the nakedness of the human, and somehow lack of nakedness I think against the fur Unlike, for instance, in this photograph or in the first botched ape where we have the sense of becoming naked, as part of the botchedness of it So I’m wondering about how that notion of nakedness versus not being– I mean one could think of Derrida [INAUDIBLE] and the fact that we are naked and they aren’t There is no nakedness I don’t know if that plays into either this the aesthetics of touch I think it plays into the aesthetic– the attraction of the wet specimen or the embryonic specimen The young, thin skin that seems closer to naked than the fully matured animal with a fully developed coat So there is that intrigue with that ostrich image that this is a pretty much denuded ostrich skin And I think there’s a power in that There’s also another element when

you deal with older taxidermy that I’ve heard They’re covered with arsenic, so there’s this super poisonous vibe that they’re given off as stressed by the older conservators Right Right And there is that If you do have access, you should go to the back room storage area of your local natural history museum and ask to see the castoff items and interact with the curator with regard to that poison element There’s a sort of awe You’re standing there you know you’re not going to touch this thing that they don’t know what to do with, because how do you discard it? So there it sits in storage It actually, when you, as we’re doing here really concentrating on the surface, I’m thinking about for a long period of time, especially my generation, work that came out of the AIDS period, and so on And all the body fluids type of things, which was one reaction I had to even seeing the animal again to the naked skin, is that today we are also very worried about Lyme disease, for example I mean you just don’t really want to pick up a deer on the road, so we are actually one thing is touch, but we’re also afraid of touching Right Yeah Right So I think there was a passage in Walter [? Hamine ?] talking about that ambivalence, the revulsion, the attraction I just wanted to kind of– this is a very vague sort of comment, but in relation to the question about touch My hunch is that the act of taking photographs of bodies of this kind is, if not a form of touching then a comparable kind of attention to touching, in usually a positively attentive, all caring, all– I’m sorry It really is terribly kind of vague, but my hunch certainly when I’m photographing road kill is that it’s something– I have no desire at all to touch those bodies, and not just because they may be kind of [? gungy ?] or whatever It’s just that that’s not what I’m doing The act of photographing in however an amateur ish way, that is the mode of attention that I’m trying to engage with I’m sorry, it’s– Do you think that the– Unanswerable remark, in a way Well it’s intriguing to me that you’re photographing looking down on that object, and it’s clear that you’re not in that image or maybe you can see a shadow or something I haven’t looked at all of your images So that’s a distancing from the thing But it’s also a kind of memorialization of it I think you mentioned in your talk that this is a specific individual of that species that you have– Yes Imaged Yeah And there’s something proximate about that There’s an intimacy there, despite the distancing of the camera Well, I would hope so, yes But I mean seeing the examples that you were showing, a lot of which have not been familiar with, I got a real very strong sense that there was something parallel to the kind of warmth of touching that those photographers engaging with Yeah I would like to see or know about any photographers who are photographing other people looking at exhibits in natural history museums, because that to me is kind of the interesting activity How are they interacting with the pieces? In terms of– oh wow In terms of the parallel between the touching and photographing, I’m spending a lot of time watching a child develop

And so you know this act of touching something is confirming It’s confirming its existence And when taxidermy is done well, it the artifice is in our face, a little bit And I think that there’s a sense that you want to touch it to confirm its existence And I’m going to say it in the nicest way, it’s a bit of a selfish response, right? I have it I think is very natural When pieces are put out for public touch, they get destroyed And a touch and see, touch and feel sections of museums, they’re always destroyed because we are not– it’s not made for us to touch And it’s not alive, so it doesn’t respond to us But that desire to confirm and confirm on a personal level, so in a sense own it, is very similar to the photography, in my mind So you when– because I do it when I photograph I mean I experienced the show I experience it one way, and then I experience a second way with my camera And then I own that experience, and it’s an interesting parallel about how our relationship with animals in all of this is a possessive one And if we see the original way that we were making these dioramas to create the idea of, oh I understand how they live, that’s another version of control So I just propose that’s sort of part of the impulse Yeah And I’m intrigued also to think about how, in digital culture, we’ve got this proliferation of images that we both own, because we made them and they’re ours in our souvenir of the experience, but also that are sort of taking on lives of their own by ending up in other people’s Facebook news feeds, or are like The Stone Fox ended up all over Russia and Adele Morse didn’t even know about it until someone told her So those images– it’s interesting because those are our experience of that very ephemeral contact that we had with that thing And then when we share those images, they become sort of a communal experience of it Maybe a fun project would be to just mine a number of Flickr or Instagram accounts for the requisite trip to AMNH I just wanted to say going back, not to the photographs but to the taxidermy itself, that I think there’s an incredible draw to want to touch those animals And some of that depends on the type of animal it is Maybe it’s a wild animal and you never encountered these, and so you sort of want to touch that And Marie Whiteman has made a video, I think you showed it right in your exhibition It’s very simple but very effective, of just a woman’s hand caressing a bear that really gets to that feeling of us wanting to know that animal and to be able to touch it and have that kind of a relationship with it So I think touch is really important, but unfortunately in museums if you’re trying to preserve things, that’s not allowed Right So I just wanted to reiterate from a conservation point of view, that the skins prior to 1980 were treated with really toxic chemicals And I used to work at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and I knew Roxie Laybourne, who was a taxidermist there and had suffered from arsenic poisoning, which she did recover from You can recover from, but I just wanted to mention to the artists or people that know artists working in this field, if they’re up cycling or recycling old taxidermic specimens, they should be really careful because it’s visible on the surface of the skin as a white crystalline material And if you do see that, it is toxic waste and not only for their own health, but also for disposal purposes If they’re cutting and removing parts of the animal and then chucking it in the garbage, for instance, you know that is an issue for the rest of us And also, in terms of handling I do work in a museum, and so it is handling is an issue just because you do wear out the specimen, but also for the hazards like I would not want to see children handling these specimens And I grew up in Boston where at the science museum there, when

I was a child in the ’60s, you were allowed to touch those specimens There were some out there right in front of the dioramas And I often wonder what they had been preserved with Now I’m still around, so it wasn’t anything too toxic, but I see a lot of taxidermic specimens in junk stores, antique stores, and I know it’s very tempting to integrate them into contemporary art But I just hope that artists are aware of their toxicity Good points Thank you, Stephanie Thank you very much Thanks everyone for coming this morning