For photographer Rob Clark, the fascination with taxidermy started with a fright. “There was a big polar bear in my hometown, in Hays, Kansas,” he says during a phone call last August. “They kind of hid it behind a door and I’d always forget it was there, and you’d come around the corner, and it would just scare you to death.”
He’s talking about the polar bear in residence at the Sternberg Museum, right off I-70. Standing on its hind legs, ears back, mouth open in a snarl, paws poised to rip you apart, the preserved bear sunk its claws into Clark’s imagination and never quite let go. But it wouldn’t be until years later when Clark would fully realize the impact that would have on his own artwork.
Now based in Brooklyn, Clark has had quite the spectrum of projects—from the photographs in Buzz Bissinger’s bestselling Friday Night Lights to the National Magazine Award-winning work of “Was Darwin Wrong?” in National Geographic magazine. In the midst of doing a story on “forgotten evolutionist” Alfred Russel Wallace, Clark came across the story of John Bellucci in Xenia, Ohio, who finally got around to mounting the tanned lion skin he’d acquired from a New York taxidermist some ten years earlier. While working with the skin, Bellucci noticed some distinct differences from the other lion skins he had worked with. The hair was thicker and coarser, the face larger and broader, the nose flatter. Before long, Bellucci realized he had in his possession the pelt of a Barbary lion—which has been extinct in the wild since the 1940s. Once Clark heard this story, the Barbary lion sunk its claws into him, just as that polar bear had so many years before. “To get up close and personal with the endangered or extinct species—or exotic species—is just amazing,” Clark says. “It’s the fact that they could bring to life something that had been gone, you know, for 80, 90, 100 years.”
And so, as Clark worked on the Darwin and Wallace stories in museums throughout the world, he made it a habit to ask to look at their taxidermy collections as well. “There’s probably dozens and dozens of species that are taxidermied that probably don’t exist any more, that are extinct,” he remembers thinking. Once he joined forces with journalist Bryan Christy to bring National Geographic a story on taxidermy, Clark got to continue the fieldwork he had begun informally. He met dozens of people who illuminated the artwork, science, and heart behind taxidermy. “They love taxidermy, the artform of taxidermy,” he says. “They know a lot about anatomy, they know a lot about the species they’re working with.”
One of these taxidermists is George Dante. Based in Woodland Park, New Jersey, Dante was called in when the mounts in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History needed restoration and repair after years of being bleached by the overhead lights. This winter, the same museum will display Dante’s latest masterpiece: Lonesome George. Lonesome George, a 200-pound Pinta Island tortoise, died in 2012 at 102 years old; he is believed to be the last of his kind. To preserve him, Dante will measure every minute feature of Lonesome George’s body and sculpt a mold to replicate him. After the tortoise’s skin is tanned, Dante will stretch it over the mold and sew it in place. Finally, Dante will reattach Lonesome George’s original shell, which had been sawed off for the routine necropsy. After a few months on display in New York, Lonesome George will return to his home on the Galápagos Islands, where thousands of visitors will have the chance to admire this natural wonder for years to come.
Ken Walker, on the other hand, is one who took a somewhat unconventional approach. While part of a team brought in to restore the Smithsonian collection of taxidermy, Walker discovered that the museum still had the body of Hsing-Hsing—a Giant Panda who had died in 1999. China had given Hsing-Hsing to the US government as a gift, and the Smithsonian was afraid mounting the panda would be perceived as an insult. So Walker innovated. Using Hsing-Hsing as inspiration, Walker constructed a panda mount and covered it with two black bear skins, one of which he bleached. The result is indistinguishable from the real thing. In fact, Walker caused a bit of an uproar when he entered it in the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships, as real pandas are illegal to taxidermy. But once the confusion was cleared up, Walker took home two awards: Best in World Re-Creation and the Competitors’ Choice Best of Show.
Clark visited Walker at his home and workshop in rural Alberta, where he found a menagerie of mounts: a fox, a mountain lion, an eight-point buck, a wolf, a polar bear. And when Clark’s assistant went to put his stuff in the guest room, he called out, “Rob, you’ve gotta see this.” On the bed, reclining against evergreen-patterned pillows, was a snow leopard—tail mid-swish, head raised as if in greeting.
Dante, Walker, and their peers “absolutely consider themselves people who are preserving the past,” Clark observes. And for him, capturing their work is critical, “because I hate to think of what’s going to be extinct in 100 years—even twenty years.” Really, Clark’s fascination with taxidermy should come as no surprise, for both taxidermy and photography are founded on a singular purpose: preservation. “You’re preserving a moment in photography, a decisive moment,” Clark says. And in taxidermy, there’s the chance to preserve a species that generations will get to see up close, long after the rest have disappeared from the wild.
Related story: Lonesome George Unveiled in New York City