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MH is a blog and archive featuring artists who are interested in the ways in which humans interact with and experience animals and nature.

Crystal McBrayer

Crystal McBrayer

The first things I photographed with any seriousness, as a young teenager, were bones and dead birds I’d find on walks through my neighborhood. So looking at the work of Crystal McBrayer, I felt a sense of nostalgia and an intense desire to get outside and into nature, even (and especially!) in these dreary fall and winter months. Crystal graciously offered to answer some questions and tell me more about her photography. Be sure to check out her other projects – Ruminations on Earthen and Osseous Matter is also fantastic.

Describe your process in creating the series Birds, Bones, & Other Once-living Things.

This project has really been a collaborative one from the beginning, involving my children in everything from discussions about life and often untimely death, respecting and honoring that life, and how art-making connects us deep to that process. All of the birds and bones in the images were discovered on our property in Prairie Grove, Arkansas where we lived and played in the woods. Our house was surrounded by a dense hardwood forest, with an enormous cow pasture on the hill behind our property. We had free-range chickens, two dogs, a lush garden (thanks to all of the rain NW Arkansas gets) and shared the property with a lot of wild animals. This put us right in the middle of experiencing the cynical nature of life. Birds crashed into our windows often, and became a very recognizable sound. Bones were dragged to our yard as gift offerings by our dogs or discovered on walks through the woods. Chickens became subject to the wide array of wild predators in the woods surrounding our house. Decay of plants were easily observed in a yard that wasn’t manicured. When these objects were discovered, they quickly became a source for discussion, investigation, and ultimately photographed. Mostly, as a way to remember that brief bit of time before it turned back to earth. Some of the images are captured in the moment, while others are curated with the help of my kids.

Bones and animal bodies appear in several of your photographic projects. What draws you to once-living things?

I think it’s that desire to connect with and understand the cycle of life. Feeling that relation to the earth, presented by our ultimate return back to the dirt.

Why do you make pictures – do you have an “agenda” or an opinion you feel driven to communicate to viewers?

Most of my work stems from the fact that I want to be outside every waking moment. I’ve always been passionate about enjoying and protecting our natural environment, and get energy from exploring any aspect of it I can. So my picture-making is really just an expression of my love for that, a document of that natural world.

What is your work/life like outside of image-making?

Professionally, I teach art at Boise State University and am the treasurer for the Northwest region of the Society for Photographic Education. Outside of work, I hike, camp, ski, bike, fish, garden, study plants, read books about nature, and anything else I can do to explore my outdoor environment.

What inspires you?

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that most of my inspiration comes from the wilderness, but I get a lot of inspiration from the people around me, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and my students. I love the partnership that the photography community has and am always inspired by seeing our ideas shared and expressed in images.

What would your autobiography be called?

Ha! That’s a good question. I’m a big fan of Henry David Thoreau, so maybe “Crystal McBrayer, the Photographic Story of a Deliberate Life Lived in the Woods.”

Visit artist's site: crystalmcbrayer.com

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L.A. Watson

L.A. Watson

I do a lot of Googling of the term “roadkill art.” I believe that’s how I came upon L.A. Watson’s Roadside Memorial Project, some time ago. Watson’s ongoing project is a “site-specific installation of reflective road signs that function as a memorial for animals killed on the road, as well as a new kind of warning sign for drivers.” Positioned low to the ground at the edge of the road are the silhouettes of animals commonly killed by cars. With their headlights on, cars passing by in either direction activate the reflective signs and cause drivers to reduce their speed and pay attention to the edges of the road, where wildlife is most likely to appear. I love what Watson writes about the signs’ color, that “white was chosen not only because it is the most highly reflective color, but because it references the iconography of human roadside memorial crosses and denotes innocence, sacrifice, spirits and ghostly specters.” I think this is such a fantastic project and I can’t wait to see more art like this, both from Watson and from others who recognize the importance of drawing attention to the tragic fact that so many animals are killed by cars on roadways.

Watson writes about her work in the chapter “Remains to Be Seen: Photographing ‘Road Kill’ and The Roadside Memorial Project” in the book Economies of Death: Economic Logics of Killable Life and Grievable Death (in which I recently learned that Watson referenced my own work!). An excerpt from the chapter: An estimated one million animals—are killed each day—in motor vehicle collisions in the United States alone. In order to help combat human fatalities and vehicular damage, wildlife warning signs featuring large-bodied animals are erected to warn drivers to the possibility of their presence; yet signs warning of smaller wildlife—who pose a much lesser threat to human life or property—such as turtles, squirrels, raccoons, or possums, are overwhelmingly absent on our nation’s highway road signs. While wildlife warning signs have been shown to reduce collisions with animals, and can function to protect both human and non-human animals’ lives, their primary purpose remains to protect human lives above all Others (as evidenced by the disparity between signs for large-bodied vs. small-bodied wildlife). In this way, the wildlife warning sign, as a highly visible, public marker, creates a particular kind of frame that works to establish “whose lives can be marked as lives, and whose deaths will count as deaths.” What would an egalitarian representation of road signs that reflects the true diversity of animals killed on the road look like?

Visit artist's site: lawatsonart.com

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Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore

After coming across Andrew Moore’s Dirt Meridian, I’ve decided to add aerial pictures of the Midwest to my list of favorite types of photography. Like the work of Terry Evans, Moore’s photographs showcase the qualities of “flyover country” that make this land unlike anywhere else. The grandness and openness, the harshness and desolation, the feeling that so much of it is untouched and unbothered, or maybe just well cared for or left in peace. With reverence, Moore captures an indescribable vastness and a special kind of beauty of the High Plains.

From a statement in Moore’s 2015 book, Dirt Meridian: No longitude in the United States carries the weight of the 100th Meridian. It’s the dividing line that bisects the country almost exactly in half between the green fertile east and arid lands of the west. It’s a land of invisible histories where there is much more than meets the eye. Yet today, it remains most commonly known as “Flyover Country”.

Photographer Andrew Moore brings this land to life in Dirt Meridian, interlacing its storied past to a vital but uncertain future. Having worked this line since 2005, Moore combines aerial and traditional large-format photography to depict the restrained, almost elusive, terrain, and the stories of families defiantly connected to the challenging landscape along the area west of the 100th Meridian in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico.

Dirt Meridian is in part about the legacy of the settler’s ambition and failure on these arid high plains, as well as the evolving story of this region of the country. In a time when climate change, drought and energy exploration are increasingly at the forefront of national concerns, the book speaks of a land subject to extreme weather conditions, where water and resources have always been scarce.

To capture the expanse of the landscape Moore took to the air in a low-flying plane, using a specially modified, extremely high-resolution digital camera mounted under the wing. Flying close to the ground allowed a perspective in which the intimate seemed conjoined with the infinite. From above, the land is like one endless unpunctuated idea—sand, tumbleweed, turkey, bunch stem, buffalo, meadow, cow, rick of hay, creek, sunflower, sand—and only rarely does a house or a windmill or a barn suddenly appear to suspend the sense of limitlessness. In Dirt Meridian these isolated sites are used both directly and indirectly to address such motifs as drought and plenty, ambition and despair, the eternal and the ephemeral—themes so redolent along this overlooked dividing line of America.

Visit artist's site: andrewlmoore.com

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Birthe Piontek

Birthe Piontek

I discovered Birthe Piontek’s work through one of her more recent projects, but it was her series The Idea of North that made me fall in love with the way the artist photographs. In 2008, Piontek spent three months in a small community in Canada’s Yukon, where she “experienced first hand the mystery and fascination of life above the 60th parallel, and met people who came here as part of their quest for the idea of North.” Each image in the series, whether depicting a human or a structure or a scene in nature, is a portrait of a place that clearly holds some magic and inexplicable intrigue. Even after looking at all 50+ of the photographs that make up the project, most of them portraits of a distinct and fascinating diversity of people, the viewer walks away with the sense that they were only given a taste of what this world is truly like.

From the artist’s statement: Individuation is a recurring theme in my photographic work: the ways people struggle to belong yet be different at the same time. Sometimes, people’s quests for identity lead them to leave the beaten path, and take the road less travelled. And for them, the quest for self-discovery becomes a journey in every sense of the word. The fast-paced, anonymous life of the urban environment sometimes offers neither the time nor space for individualization, nor the comforting place needed for belonging. So, for some, the sense of freedom and interdependence intrinsic to a remote, Northern community makes it an idealized symbol of the Promised Land.

The idealization of the North has been nourished by stories by Jack London and Robert Service; by numerous movies about the area’s wild and pristine tapestry; and even by images of the Northern lights, which to this day, although certainly explicable by science, have lost none of their spiritual fascination or magical appeal. I’m not the first observer to be simultaneously intrigued, yet remain a visitor. Glenn Gould, whose work inspired the title, wrote after visiting the North briefly, “I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tales about,” and in the end, return South.

Visit artist's site: birthepiontek.com

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Emily Vallee

Emily Vallee

In her series Down the Rabbit Hole, Emily Vallee investigates her family’s relationship with the landscape and the beings that exist within the forest and the psychological aspects and implications manifested and held there. Born and raised on a farm in the green mountains of Vermont, Vallee writes that she has an often inexplicable, reverent and deeply personal bond with the natural world. Her practice generally explores her relationship with the earth and the animals that roam the woods and fields. Vallee’s photographs are quiet and still, yet striking–each image is powerful and arresting. To me, the work speaks of the brutality of nature, in the stark months of winter as well as other times of year when, while the vegetation is green and verdant, the stories that unfold are dark and mysterious.

From the artist’s statement: Through photography I seek to unearth the connection between the human and the animal. There is constant fluctuation in relationship of ‘human’ and ‘animal’. Aldo Leopold states in his Sand County Almanac that “we abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. I consider in my photographs how this sentiment translates not only to our relationship with the land but to our relationship with animals – furthermore the creatures, plants and living things we share this planet with. We have constructed a separation between humans and the wilderness. I hunt to find this separation, examine it and and simultaneously destroy these boundaries. With these photographs I ask, although we have stepped so forward into the future, what can we gain from stepping back to examine our most animalistic nature? Imprints left on the land from animal and from human are particularly salient, they symbolize an event, a stepping, a whisp of air, a birth, a body, and above all they hold mystery.

“The intricacy of the crossing paths and crossing energies in a forest — the paths of birds, insects, mammals, spores, seeds, reptiles, ferns, lichens, worms, trees, etc., etc. — is unique; perhaps in certain areas on the seabed there exists a comparable intricacy, but there man is a recent intruder, whereas, with all his sense perceptions, he came from the forest.” – John Berger

Visit artist's site: emilyvallee.com

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Barbara Bosworth

Barbara Bosworth

I discovered the work of Barbara Bosworth a year and a half ago, and ever since I posted images from her series One Star and a Dark Voyage and Natural Histories, they have stuck with me. The pictures are dark and haunting and they have remained some of my favorites. At the time I first saw them, I also took note of Bosworth’s Birds and Other Angels, a series of pictures equally arresting but completely different in tone.

These portraits of birds held gently in the hands of humans or during the moment of release were made “in northeast Ohio and middle Massachusetts during the spring migration. Researchers catch and then release the birds for the purpose of gathering data to study their behavior, monitor the population and to track migration routes.” The photographs portray each bird as “a wonderment,” “a flash of color,” a creature that appears all at once powerful, knowing, graceful, and otherworldly.

I love these sentiments from a statement Bosworth is writing about this body of work. They provide a poignant insight into the artist’s love and admiration for birds, something that’s clearly evident in the pictures she has made.

From the artist’s statement: “Up with me! Up with me into the clouds!” – William Wordsworth, “To a Sky-Lark”

The first image that entranced me as a child was a print from the 1930’s that hung on my bedroom wall as it had on my father’s childhood wall before me. It was of a young girl sitting, turned backwards on a bench in the woods looking up into a birch tree next to her, looking up at a robin. She was so close she could have reached out and touched it.

Later in life I learned of the paintings of Fra Angelico. In them I saw saints, palms turned toward heaven, at times it seemed reaching for the void, just reaching.

When my mother was failing with Parkinson’s and the dementia had its hold, she would reach out, upwards, as if to hold onto something from heaven. Once, a few years ago, while we were gathered around my father as he was dying, I asked her what she was reaching for [and] she replied ‘Oh! The birds!'”

Visit artist's site: barbarabosworth.com

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Steve Baker

Steve Baker

When I was in college, one of my assignments was to make a series of photographs using only a cell phone. This was in the fall of 2010, before just about everyone had a smartphone. I was riding my bike to school every day on a bike path (a bikes-only path, not one alongside a road) and noticing the flattened bodies of birds, rats, and squirrels, presumably killed under the tires of bicycles. Because I always had my (non-smartphone) camera phone on me, it was a great, if low-quality, way to document what I was seeing even beyond the prompt of the assignment. Almost daily, I’d pull off the path, snap a photo of the animal, always including my feet, and then move its body out of the way of traffic. The pictures got me thinking toward what would be a big photographic project of mine, At Rest, and I think back to them often.

I was reminded of this assignment when I saw Steve Baker’s series of pictures, Roadside. Made with a compact digital camera, the images depict roadkill animals Baker noticed while bicycling the country lanes of Norfolk and Suffolk, England. He’d stop and look down at the animal, snapping a photo while including an aspect of his bicycle in the frame in order to “mark each image as an actual encounter with a particular creature’s lost life.” If nothing else, and even if in a “crude” manner, this inclusion unfailingly illustrates the human presence, the human tending-to of this sad scene. It’s a sentiment I can appreciate: I think there’s something so meaningful about stopping to notice the death of animals, bearing witness, performing a conscious ritual, however small, to pay tribute to the fallen animal.

Steve Baker is the keynote speaker at the Seeing with Animals conference held at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY, in March 2017. He is the author of several books about living with animals, including Artist | Animal, which can be purchased here.

Visit artist's site: steve-baker.com

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Laura Glabman

Laura Glabman

I first found out about the work of Laura Glabman through her series The Spring After the Storm, in which she documents Hurricane Sandy’s stark effects on the domestic landscapes in her Long Island neighborhood. On a recent visit to her portfolio website, I discovered Glabman’s Neighborhood Investigations, images depicting the strange presence of animals in suburban America. I have probably mentioned before that these are my favorite types of photographs–the ones you can take on an afternoon wandering around a city or a neighborhood. You can encounter things that surprise you, things weird and humorous, kooky and disturbing. (Think Daniel George, Bernard Mindich, Paul Sisson.) They’re photos I always loved taking, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of looking at them.

From the artist’s statement: The day I took the image of the giraffe on the front lawn of this suburban home, a car drove by and someone yelled out, “What is this, the Bronx Zoo?” I never met the people who lived there so I don’t know why they had a giraffe on their front lawn but I do know I would not pass up the opportunity to photograph one. I have been documenting my neighborhood for the last eight years and I have come across quite a lot of animal themed items and have been photographing them and collecting them as if they were prizes to be won at a fair. When my family and I first moved to Long Island over 50 years ago my neighborhood actually did not even exist. Everything was built from the ground up, right before our eyes. Now I am watching a lot of what was built disappear including the mom and pop stores and the old model homes. I may be a bit sentimental and as a friend of mine describes it, “Glabman lovingly embraces every shrub, ornament, home or commercial decoration she captured from neighboring properties: as though she had personally set them out for passersby to appreciate and enjoy.”

Visit artist's site: lauraglabman.com

Found via: Feature Shoot

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Rob MacInnis

Rob MacInnis

I remember seeing the movie Babe as a six-year-old and my enchantment with animals transforming to something completely new. The same thing happened when reading Animal Farm some six years later. The concept that animals could be beings like humans, capable of complex thought and conversation, and not in a cartoon, Disney-movie way, changed the way I thought about and interacted with animals. I felt like not only could I see animals, creatures commonly thought to be on earth solely for man’s enjoyment, entertainment, and consumption–animals could see me.

Rob MacInnis’s photographs are about seeing animals, both how we as humans see animals and how these creatures are animals who see. These “common” animals–sheep, goats, cows, horses, dogs, and birds–are arranged before the lens as if on their marks, ready for their performance to start. They seem aware of our presence, our watching, and unfazed. But it feels like they’re up to something, like there’s much more going on behind those inhuman eyes than what’s visible on the surface.

Although it’s longer than what I normally include, I’m posting MacInnis’s statement in its entirety. For me, it informed the pictures in a way I haven’t seen many other statements do, and the questions it suggests are worth the read.

From the artist’s statement: “We do not identify dogs in terms of their physical characteristics… They’re identified in terms of our mental constructions, so they’re basically mental objects.” – Noam Chomsky, “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?”

I remember a potent thought I first had as a kid at my family’s cottage on the Northumberland Strait, sitting on cheap reclining lawn chairs one October night. I inhaled the cool air from the shore as my mind was blown by my cousin’s descriptions of the impossible heavens above. During a little silence, I had a big thought: “What would it be like if the universe had never existed?” I tried hard, but couldn’t imagine. It was an odd thought, though a pleasingly impossible one which I tend to revisit with the same frequency as my attempts to learn the elusive art of whistling. “Could whistling create a portal to another universe?!” may describe how I approach my artworks/projects/distractions/displays-of-affection. Throwing rocks as far out to sea as I can, resulting in ever-pathetic, humorous and inevitable failures that re-verify the limits of my own present reality. The rocks always land somewhere between me and the waterfall at the end of the ocean, rubbing the real and the imaginary together.

Years later, as John Cage became the patron saint of my contrarian heart, I day-dreamed that these failures were not inevitable. Every limiting parameter signified a space beyond [its] edge. The trick I learned from my smarter older brother, that it’s impossible to look at a word without reading it, felt more like a challenge than a rule. I wondered if I could look an animal straight in the eye and make no assumptions about [its] thoughts.

I blew large, uneasy shiny bubbles, anti-photographs of animals. And if you looked close in the right light you would see contained within, the apparition of perfected human bodies and photography’s ability to forever justify its exploitations. Something Lorrie Morre said, “I would never understand photography, the sneaky, murderous taxidermy of it.” To be honest, I am shy and people frightened me. Animals only pooped on your shoes.

I wondered if you projected enough white light onto black, would it disappear? Would the result be the negation of both, something new or just the impartial, toothless arbitrar? Could I ever see an animal? Or realize what seeing it means? I wanted to catch myself not seeing them. If I made them look like us, simply by virtue of my sharp aim, my repetitive and singular approach, my stylish bag of photo tricks, what would be the reflection? If I blew a bubble shiny enough, attractive enough, as impeccable as the polished mirror in a deep-space telescope: would it perfectly reflect us, richer than before? Can we really only see our own creations and nothing else?

It’s truly bizarre to tell people you have never seen these animals, but have only thought of them. That they can’t see this donkey, posed as a fashion model, because everything inside of a photograph is a hallucination. Trying to make animals disappear is about as hard as imagining the opposite of the universe but it’s well worth the effort.

Visit artist's site: robmacinnis.com

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Tony Maher

Tony Maher

I was introduced to Tony Maher’s work by my friend Julia Schlosser, who is working on putting together a photography exhibition about pet animals. While at first Maher’s Mermaids series reminded me of Seth Casteel’s famous Underwater DogsMermaids is not so comedic as it is mysterious, ethereal, and even off-putting. Large black dogs are clearly playing and swimming in a pool, but in some images the pool reads as a rough ocean, and the perspective–from below–is one we certainly don’t expect of “life with pets” snapshots. My favorite of the images are the ones in which black animal-like shapes are moving toward the camera with unknown intentions, or a silhouette of a creature seems wrapped up in white water and bubbles, its direction and orientation unidentified.

From the artist’s statement: These images float in a sort of limbo between real and unreal. It is the suggested reality that gives the viewer something to grasp onto to try and make some kind of a connection with the subject. As playful as the images may seem at first, they still emote a sinister sense of place. They are taken from a vantage point not normal to most people, forced under water where we struggle to make a connection. The title refers to the mythological creatures that many a sailor fell in love with. Only the sailor could never really reach the beautiful maiden, and was left instead with a sense of wonder and unattainability. Stories tell of sailors falling overboard trying to reach a mermaid, only to end up struggling beneath the waves.

Visit artist's site: tonymaher.net

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