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.”

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