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Photographs represent a requiem for wildlife

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November 5, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — The deer hangs upside-down above fresh snow, a chain wrapped around the base of its antlers seeming to pull it closer to the ground. On one side of the dead animal is the grill of a truck, on the other a folded lawn chair. 

The black-and-white photograph, taken on Route 100 in Londonderry, was the first in a series Orwell artist May Mantell began upon moving to Vermont eight years ago, a series that focuses on animals killed, intentionally or otherwise, and their unlucky place in the human world.

A show of the photographs, titled “Animals, a Requiem,” is on display at the Johnson Gallery of the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Art Building at Middlebury College through Monday, Nov. 12. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 4:30 p.m. Mantell will discuss her work in a talk at the gallery.

For Mantell, taking pictures of dead animals is a way to acknowledge not just the indifferent human approach to animal death, but to human death as well.

“I think of them as poems about mortality,” she said.

This became clear to Mantell in 2003 at the start of the Iraq war. At the same time, almost to the day, she brought her camera to the Orwell coyote derby and took pictures of piles of coyote corpses as they were dusted with a light snow. That’s when she knew her work over the last few years had a theme.

“It wasn’t anything I could put my finger on,” she said. “It was just a real sadness about the way humans often treat each other and other creatures, without considering the preciousness of life.” 

Before coming to Vermont in 1999, Mantell worked primarily in large format conceptual photography, arranging scenes she would snap in a California studio. But here she found the most compelling subject matter was nothing she could arrange; it was all around her and, most strikingly, strewn all over the roads.

“Death is more visible, living in a rural, agricultural area,” she said.

Mantell has captured it everywhere: in the truck transporting dead cows to the rendering plant; the discarded deer left by the guardrails along a country road; the frog hand left in the lawn mower’s wake; and the hunters’ bounty, hanging to cure outside the barn.

The images aren’t gratuitous or gory; but they do certainly evoke a sense of melancholy. In some cases, like when Mantell tucked a flower into the wing of a fallen pigeon, they are almost peaceful.

“Sometimes I think it’s just a way to have my own little moment,” she said. “It’s almost a childlike gesture. You know, you have a little ceremony, for lack of a better word, for this creature, pay some respect to the life.”

In one of the only photographs taken outside of Vermont, taken on a trip to Australia, a row of fox bodies is draped over a barbed-wire fence separating one man’s field from another. Mantell was struck by the intentionality of the hunters, the way they seemed to use the dead foxes to communicate a warning to other animals.

Mantell is acutely aware of the echoes of war photography in her work, especially in the piles of corpses at the coyote derby, and later at a crow derby. But the humanness is evident even in the roadkill.

One photo depicts a squirrel, lying on its back in the middle of Fisher Road in Orwell. Its head is tilted up to the sky and its paws are curled up like human hands in defense. To Mantell, it looks like a fallen soldier.

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