Photographer Amy Stein is a city girl. Primarily, she has lived in Washington, D.C., and New York, where encounters between humans and wildlife usually involve squirrels.
So when she went to the country to work on a project about women and guns, she was surprised to hear about more serious encounters, including a girl seeing a bear on the other side of the chain-link fence that separated her home from the mountains.
“I just became fascinated with these stories and so I set out to re-create these stories,” Stein said by phone from Parsons The New School of Design in New York, where she teaches photography.
The project is Domesticated, on exhibit at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky as part of the Robert C. May Photography Endowment Lecture Series. She will talk about the project at 4 p.m. Friday in a free lecture at the UK Student Center’s Worsham Theatre.
Domesticated started at Dave Clark’s taxidermy shop in Matamoras, Pa., which became the setting for the series.
“He was kind of open-minded to working with an artist like myself,” Stein says. “Through spending time in his store and spending time in the town, I became very interested in the location of the town, which is between the Delaware River and a big mountain park. It’s a small town sort of sandwiched between two natural spaces.
“As I spent more time at Dave Clark’s local taxidermy shop, I was hearing more and more about these human-animal encounters that happened at night.”
She tried to wait out some naturally occurring images. For the most part, though, she quickly came to realize that she needed to stage the shots.
“We set out every weekend to create images related to specific stories,” Stein says of herself and her husband, John, who made regular trips from New York to Matamoras, about 80 miles northwest of the city.
It turned out to be a really good thing to know a taxidermist. Clark or his customers would lend Stein the animals that would be posed in a variety of looks: a wolf howling at a floodlight in a Target parking lot, a deer lounging in a greenhouse, that big black bear startling the little girl at her swimming pool.
“The bear’s face had this ridiculous expression, this open-mouth, aggressive expression,” Stein says of the animal, which eventually was photographed from behind. “It took me a while to realize I need to get behind the bear and show the form of the bear without showing the face because that will have more power and also camouflage this ridiculous expression.”
Stein says she usually had to take some time to talk with the people whom she asked to be in the photos, to help them understand what she was doing and that this wasn’t a “smile for the camera” type of portrait.
“One thing I would always do is bring examples of images that are already made, that are in the style of what I wanted to make,” Stein says. “I was lucky at this point that there were some images in Oprah magazine and some pretty big magazines that had published some of the images. That gives you immediate credibility in a sense.”
Some photographs were spontaneous, including Threat, which shows a little boy in the woods with a deer, and Fast Food, which depicts seagulls swooping in to eat a discarded burger and fries in a parking lot.
“It’s a lot easier for animals to eat our refuse and scraps, because they have calories and protein and they don’t have to hunt it,” Stein says.
Animals eating humans’ discards was one of several themes in the series, along with fences that people build to put up barriers between themselves and the natural world, even though the barriers don’t always hold.
Predator shows a little girl standing in a flowery pink dress at the open gate of her fence as a coyote walks menacingly by. Stein says that sometime later, she heard that the same family had trouble with a bear that wanted to hibernate under their house.
Stein says that despite such annoyances, she found that most of the people knew what they were getting into, living where they live.
“They’re lovely people who want to share the beauty and wonder of their surroundings,” Stein says.
And they have, through her lens.