Natural Skull Revisited

Today's hike in the mountains—the very first one without snow this season—led the dogs to rediscover that same deer carcass that I've photographed over six months ago. This deer, as we learned at that time from a biologist, was killed by a pack of wolves.

Prior to the snowfall late last autumn, the carcass was intact excluding the separated skull—likely a toy for the wolf cubs, that biologist also told us. Six months later, the elements—and the animals—"did their thing." Many of the bones were pulled apart and found far away from the carcass, including an entire leg. The skull was partly crushed—evidently by the heavy mountain snows. I am still considering taking away it at some point and using it in my photographs, after a heavy dose of disinfectants, of course.

Be that as it may, observing the natural processes that take place in and around a dead animal's body was quite fascinating (noxious odors and a strong sense of repulsion excluded) for someone like me, who spent almost an entire life in large cities. I could see how the animal was being reappropriated by the earth, traces fading, until eventually it will be no more.

Aesthetics of Difficulty

I've always noticed that when it comes to my own work (and that of others), what I find the most aesthetically pleasing simply isn't what many other people prefer.

Based on my experience on social networks, including those specifically targeting higher-end photography such as 500px, the majority gravitates toward overtly beautiful landscapes and women as well as cute animals and children, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Of course, I can't say that there's something particularly "wrong" with this preference because much of what I shoot also involves similar categories. But the problem with stunning landscapes, for instance, is that Nature does most of the work for you. In this case, the photographer's job is to supersede a tourist with a good smartphone by choosing unusual angles and by ensuring a near-perfect composition. 

And simply being there with your camera all the time. Just in case.

Thus, it's about access, by and large: my living in the mountains translates into having greater opportunity to photograph wondrous scenery more so than someone in a metropolis.

If you overlook the price of isolation, this approach might be too easy. In contrast, I am especially drawn toward photographs that are beautifully minimalist, have subtle references, or feature the everyday in a surprising way. 

I also prefer images that show something that would conventionally be considered ugly and repulsive in a beautiful way--and not as a matter of shock value.

For instance, remember (no pun intended) my memento mori series from a few months back? 

When the dogs found a half-decomposed deer carcass just off my favorite hiking trail, I had to pull them away in fear of disease. This particular deer was killed by a pack of wolves, a biologist told us. You can imagine the smell and the maggots in the heat of summer--or maybe you better not.

Yet I knew that if I only breathe through my mouth, I could document the beautiful way in which the sunlight hits the back of the dead animal's eye socket or the geometric purity of lines in its rib cage. 

So, it's pattern recognition. No more, no less.

Every image-maker is a minimalist: it is up to him to notice, isolate, and present.


In Russian folk tales, various protagonists, most often warriors, come upon a directional stone at a crossroads. They face the choice of freedom and the freedom of choice in the context of Fate. 

When I passed by this wooden fence with a moose skull mounted on it in rural Rockies, I imagined the following lines inscribed below, as if it were that very fateful crossroads, albeit in the Northwest:

If you head left, you will lose your horse.
If you head right, you will lose your life.
If you go straight ahead, you will live, forgetting yourself.


Natural Vanitas

My interest in refurbishing Baroque vanitas paintings--emphasizing the ultimate mutability of life on earth, death's certainty,  and spiritual transcendence--as photographs in a natural environment remains strong.

So I've gone back to the deer carcass the dogs had found a few days ago to document it properly. Unlike another recent vanitas featuring an animal skull, these images are not staged.

Of course, the said carcass happens to be located in an area known for bears and mountain lions. The latter doesn't make me feel entirely comfortable, considering that I lose all my normally decent observation skills for the outside world when I'm photographing. (And what would a photoshoot be like without having Japanese rockers serenading and sometimes screaming into my music player's headphones? ;) ).

As a result, I couldn't stay for long. 

The two sets of images below indicate my aesthetic selection process, incomplete on this subject as yet. Keeping only one or two, I prefer the desaturated exemplars in color: 

I suspect, however, that the majority of you likely prefers these sepia duotone images instead: