The story behind the image

Nikon D2, 17-35 f2.8 lens @ f8, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, Diffused Nikon speedlight flash bounced off ceiling

Nikon D1x, 17-35 f2.8 lens @ f8, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, Diffused flash bounced off ceiling

…In terms of my photography, the most common question I am asked is “What is your favourite picture that you’ve taken”.   It’s a very easy question to ask, but as those of you who shoot pictures regularly will no doubt understand, it’s an incredibly difficult one to answer.

In order to categorize a picture so precisely, I think it’s probably worth mentioning that according to me,  ‘favourite picture’ doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘best picture’.  The former suggests a degree of sentimental value, whereas the latter would probably best be judged by the objective eye of an experienced stranger and not by that of the image’s originator.

So, after quite a bit of thought, and for many reasons, sentimental and other, I have decided that this image is my favourite from my archive.

For those of you that are familiar with my back catalogue, I’m sure that a few of you reading this may be a little bemused by this choice of image.  After all, on surface inspection it is quite a demeaning and derogatory photo – a style in which I am not renowned for shooting.  However, for me the beauty in this photo lies in exactly that uneasy predicament that you are confronted with as a viewer, and one that may make more sense after I’ve elaborated a little on the circumstances surrounding its inception.

I shot this photo about 5 years ago for inclusion in the fantastic BAFTA-nominated documentary Taxidermy Stuff the World.  The film follows the fortunes of a handful of taxidermists from around the world as they find, ‘stuff’ and eventually show their best work at the fantastically glitzy World Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois, USA.   The photograph shows taxidermist Jeanette Hall from Spring Creek, Nevada, standing with her pedestal mounted Appaloosa horse outside her hotel room in the corridor of the Crown Plaza hotel in Springfield.

Jeanette ended up playing quite a prominent role in the film, not least because she has such a brilliantly interesting and honest character.  Amongst her talents at the time, she was most renowned for her love of diligently mounting the testicles of various animals on small varnished plaques, something that the armchair psychologists amongst our crew identified with her recent status as an embittered divorcee and one that her free-standing freezer choc-a-bloc full of frozen testicles certainly alluded to.

Nevertheless, after spending some time with Jeanette over the course of our filming it soon became apparent that she, like many of her contemporaries in the world of taxidermy whose passion often required them to kill wildlife, was in fact blessed with a strangely genuine love of animals.  For me this paradox was a fascinating revelation to discover and one that I feel gives this portrait of her and her cherished horse so much more poignancy.  For sure, it’s hard to ignore the brutal symbolism of the severed white horse’s head but it is somehow eclipsed by the delicate intimacy evident in the way she’s holding its reins.  Similarly,  the Mona Lisa smile of both Jeanette and her treasured horse beguile the tragically large and prominent 3rd place rosette pinned to this carefully manicured nape.  Of course, quite a large factor in the initial attraction to this image comes from the simple fact that at a swift glance it is surprisingly easy to overlook the ‘minor’ detail that this beautiful horse is not actually alive and indeed doesn’t even posses any body below its neckline.

A few months after I got back from the shoot this particular image was included in an exhibition of photojournalism and ended up framed in a London gallery sandwiched between photographs from the war in Afghanistan and the Asian Tsunami.   In my experience, most people’s initial reaction to the photo is one of either disdain or mockery and this was very much the case at that time.  At the private view I remember wondering what Jeanette would think if she knew that people were sniggering at her portrait in a well-to-do London gallery.   It was an uncomfortable feeling, so I tracked down her contact details and sent her an email asking for her opinion.   Her reply was swift and brilliantly comforting.  She wrote that she absolutely loved the picture and that her horse looked beautiful. She said that she had given framed copies to her family and friends and that in fact, her personal copy took pride of place on her mantelpiece at home.  She didn’t care what other people thought of her picture.

I think that is why I like this picture so much.  To some it’s disgusting, to others beautiful.  For me it is deeply ironic… for Jeanette it’s just a lovely picture of her and her beloved Appaloosa horse.  It can mean so many different things to different people but most importantly, it does so without actually causing offence to the person who originally posed for the photo in good faith, something that I think about a lot when people allow me the opportunity to photograph them.  All in all it’s a picture full of paradox and irony and I like that.  Ironic too that the picture I have ended up choosing as my favourite was, out of necessity, shot with flash, something I normally can’t stand and almost never use in my photography.

I suppose that one of the prominent qualities that keeps me enamoured by a picture is whether or not, as I study it more and more, I discover things about that image that I would like to change… things that I feel would improve it somehow.  In the case of this image, after quite a few years I am still happy with it just the way it is.  Well, almost.  I’ve often secretly wished that Springfield’s Crown Plaza Hotel had had a slightly more garish wall paper adorning its corridors.  But then again, nothing’s ever perfectly right when you’re a photographer.

As an amusing postscript to this story, I am including the link below to an article about Jeanette that I found in The Telegraph and which I think sums up the complexities of her philosophy on life brilliantly.  Absolutely classic!

“Woman who turns pets into pillows faces death threats”  The Telegraph, 10 Apr 2005

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Interested in more stories behind the image? … Click HERE


2 Responses to “Taxidermy”

  1. rach says:

    I think that this picture is beautiful and I totally understant the feeling in this picture. It shows the love she had for her horse when it was alive and that she can still show it even after he is gone. I personally have a horse and I have debated “stuffing” him once he dies. The way she is holding the riens with soft hands represents the type of connection she had with her horse and the way the horses expression is just captures a moment in time that is really beautiful. I love this picture.

  2. Natasha_Mazhuga says:

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