In some ways, taxidermy can be viewed as a precursor to photography — a static, visual representation of life. And while the process itself is fascinating as a morbid half-resurrection, a bridge between the living and the dead, it’s the necromancers themselves who are the subject of photographer Mike McGregor’s series Preserve.
“There is a intimate relationship between taxidermists and their mounts that I wanted to express,” says McGregor, who made the portraits at businesses in the Northeastern states close to his home.
Growing up, McGregor remembers the many mounts on the walls of his uncles’ living rooms. He frequently accompanied them on hunts and so Preserve continues McGregor’s long-standing fascination with sport hunting.
“Most of the taxidermists regularly serve both private individuals and public clientele,” says McGregor. “Individual big-game hunters are their bread and butter, but almost every taxidermist in the series has received an order for 200 animals to fill a Bass Pro Shop, or an order for a herd of elephants for a museum.”
While the industry seems like a niche to outsiders, it’s in many ways a timeless profession. “There have always been hunters and they have always wanted to display their conquests,” says McGregor. And presumably, there always will be. McGregor covered the small shops that grew organically from their owner’s memorializing of their own hunts as well as the bigger shops. The larger operations hire people with specific skills and multiple taxidermists will work on a single mount. Art school graduates practiced in painting will repaint hides. Sculptors can mold intricate plaster-work.
McGregor is not the first photographer attracted to the eerie stillness of glassy-eyed animalia. Richard Barnes, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Klaus Pichler and Danielle van Ark have ventured inside archives and scoured the dioramas of natural history museums full of fauna in stasis. Cynthia Nudel is all about death erasure, Rene Meseman just digs a dead bird with a funky hairdo, and Kimberly Witham serves up taxidermy with your breakfast. Simon Johan makes images of close and disturbing animals — so close, they must be stuffed, they may be photoshopped. Probably both and definitely unnatural. Vincent Fournier creates digital versions of future animals (still stuffed though).
The art form is not only about a relationship to death, but also a close relationship to nature. A relationship that, for Americans, is fractured, according to McGregor. “Even in the Midwest (where I grew up with hunters) people still don’t have an idea of where their dinner came from. This is a problem with which society is just starting to grapple,” he says. “That said, the recent urban trend towards farm-to-table/understand-what-you-eat phenomenon has increased the work that many local taxidermists have received.”
McGregor met some real characters during his work. He also met some real artists. At the beginning of Preserve the differences between him and his subjects are what stuck out the most, but by the end it was the similarities.
“The thing I found interesting about high-end taxidermists and my world dealing with photo shoots with stylists, makeup artists and hair stylists is how similar they are. We both take a moldable subject and transform it to our needs. We both have a team of specialists paint, comb, condition and sculpt our subjects into an ideal, and then preserve them for immortality.”
All images: Mike McGregor