at Length

Kimberly Witham

—Darren Ching

interview by Darren Ching and Debra Klomp Ching

Pears by Kimberly Witham

Pears © Kimberly Witham

At Length: How long have you been photographing and what originally inspired you to begin?

Kimberly Witham: I came to photography through a rather circuitous route.  As an undergraduate, I studied Art History.  Modern and contemporary art were my focus, and I often wrote about photography. The Serrano “Piss Christ” NEA scandal was happening at the time, so photography was really in the news.  After some graduate study in Art History, I decided to switch my career path.  I wanted to be a ‘maker’ instead of a critic.  In retrospect, it makes sense that I gravitated towards photography, but at the time it was just something that interested me.  I started making pictures more seriously about 15 years ago.

AL: Your practice seems to involve two key elements – the still life and dead animals. Were these two elements intertwined from the beginning or did one offer a special fascination?

KW: My still life fascination most likely comes from two sources – my mother is Dutch. I grew up surrounded by a very Dutch world-view and aesthetic.  My studies in Art History furthered this fascination.  I have always been interested in how images are interpreted.   In particular, traditional Dutch still life paintings have intentionally coded meanings.

I have always been attracted to animals and natural history as well.  Growing up, we had dogs, cats, horses, chickens, etc.  I have always loved natural history museums, birds’ nests, animal bones, you name it.  Ultimately, my interest in still life and my interest in natural history collided.  My early work includes both still life and landscape.  The animals came later, once I moved to the suburbs.

AL: The dead animals you use in your artwork originate as roadkill? Do you go out looking for them? 

KW: No.  The creatures in my images are found during my daily journeys to work, the grocery store, etc.  I am very alert to the side of the road when I travel, but I never cruise around looking.  Sadly, I do not need to go out of my way to find dead creatures by the roadside.  I am always prepared to stop – I keep plastic bags of various sizes and hand sanitizer in my car.  I also have a hack saw for deer antlers . . .

Raccoon by Kimberly Witham

Raccoon © Kimberly Witham

AL: We understand that you learned taxidermy. Why did you do this and how does it affect your photographic and creative process. 

KW: I learned taxidermy at the American Institute of Taxidermy in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin.  I only studied small mammal and bird taxidermy, as those are the creatures I tend to find.  Fish taxidermy is rather complex and holds no appeal for me!  I was the only woman, and the only non-hunter in my class.  Although I think I was a bit of a novelty to my classmates, they were very good-natured guys.  When I did not run away screaming, I think I earned their respect.

In many ways, I consider my still life photos to be documents of sculptural constructions, which exist only for a brief time and only for my eyes.  I wanted to find a way to make more permanent manifestations of my still life constructions.  Taxidermy seemed like the best way to achieve this goal.

Although I am far from a scientist, taxidermy also allows a greater understanding of the muscular and skeletal systems of the animals I encounter.

AL: Which animals are hardest / easiest to manipulate and work into the images? Do you have favorites?

KW: I have a few pieces with baby deer.  While they are small for deer, they are not ‘small’ – somewhere around 40 lbs or so.  Due to size and weight they are the hardest to work with.  Birds are the easiest, as they are so small and light.  I don’t have favorites.  Frankly, I would be happy if I never encountered another roadkill creature again.  The creatures I work with are simultaneously incredibly beautiful and totally heartbreaking.

AL: Do you make a still life to work with the animal or vice versa? 

KW: The whole process happens very organically.  To some extent, I am forced to work with the pose the animal died in – rigor mortis is not forgiving.  That being said, I do have sketches of ideas inspired by paintings, daydreams, etc.  They often include a specific type of animal.  More often than not, the photo I think I am going to make is not the one I end up with.  I have a studio filled with props, tables, seed pods, skulls, dishes, fabrics, you name it.  I just start moving things around to see what will happen.  It generally takes a day to make one photo.

Squirrel by Kimberly Witham

Squirrel © Kimberly Witham

AL: ’Of Ripeness and Rot’ was selected for the Fresh 2015 exhibition at the Klomching Gallery. How have these photographs developed from your earlier work?

KW: Prior to beginning work on ‘On Ripeness and Rot’ I created a series of still life images titled ‘Domestic Arrangements.’  These images include roadkill creatures and household items, but the aesthetic was much more bright, colorful and playful.  I made these images in response to encountering lots of roadkill after buying a house in the suburbs.  I was spending my evenings painting and remodeling an old house, and my days driving to work and picking up roadkill. I often joke that in making ‘Domestic Arrangements’ I was imagining myself as the love child of Martha Stewart and Carl Akeley (the father of modern taxidermy).

As I was finishing that project, events began to unfold in my life which made me think about mortality, beauty and fecundity.  The darker aesthetic of ‘On Ripeness and Rot’ developed from that point.

AL: The reference to the Dutch Vanitas is very evident. How would you say you’ve developed this form of still life, and made it your own?

KW: Gosh, that is a tough question.  Vanitas paintings referred to both the beauty of the physical world, and the looming threat of death and the afterlife.  My images use this age-old visual language, but reference very contemporary conditions (roadkill is a modern problem, after all).  My images are more pared down.  I have always been a strong believer in the ‘less is more’ adage, and many traditional still life paintings are too over the top for me.  I prefer to be more subtle, perhaps because I am dealing with such sensitive materials.

AL: Your images portray great depth of color, are obviously very well conceived, quite restrained – suggesting a detailed and determined process of making. Can you tell us something about how you make the work?

KW: Solitude is everything to me.  My studio is quiet – no music, no distractions.  Almost all of the images from ‘On Ripeness and Rot’ were made in my old studio, which was the enclosed sun porch on my house.  I use naturally light and minimal tools—a few pieces of white foam core to bounce light, a tripod, and a camera.  I work slowly and methodically.  I find myself moving objects by fractions of an inch to get everything in the ‘perfect’ spot. Color and texture are important elements as well.  As I said before, my studio is filled with fabric, objects, etc. and I spend a lot of time looking, thinking and rearranging.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work, and I end the day with nothing.  Other days it comes together immediately.  When I finally have the image, there is always this brief moment where I look through the lens and just gasp for a second.

My family and I recently moved to a new house with more land, and an outbuilding studio where I can lock myself away in silence, even when everyone is home.  I am still getting set up.  It takes a remarkable amount of time to unpack a studio with so many props.

Hanging Birds by Kimberly Witham

Hanging Birds © Kimberly Witham

AL: The symbolic use of the dead animals is consistent with the concept of the Vanitas, but you are careful to incorporate them in an understated and quiet manner. How do people respond when they realize what they’re looking at?

KW: I am conscious of the fact that I am walking a fine line.  I intentionally avoid using creatures which are mutilated or grotesque.  It is important to me that my images show reverence for the creatures pictured, and the natural world as a whole.  Most people see that reverence in my images (admittedly, some do not).  Many people initially assume that the creatures have been placed via photo-manipulation. Once they understand my working process,  the most common questions are “do you where gloves?” and “what do you do with the animals once you have made the photo?”

AL: Are there aspects of the photographs that you intend to be evident, that are perhaps overlooked by viewers? For example, is there a very slight and quiet amount of humor?

KW: There is a vein of dark humor which runs through my work.  It is somewhat more evident in ‘Domestic Arrangements,’ but it’s also present in ‘On Ripeness and Rot.’  There is something quite absurd about photographing roadkill, delicate tea cups and flowers in the same frame.  I think this absurdity is evident in many of the images.

AL: The scale of the work is quite small, intimate, which ties in with the restrain of visual expression. Tell us about how the size relates to the image.

KW: I don’t want to emphasize theatrical and/or grotesque qualities in my work.  I think the scale of the prints also references the way in which they were created.  Smaller prints are more intimate, intended to be viewed by one or two people at a time.  One is required to be physically closer and to slow down to really see the image. The friction between beauty and revulsion is important to me.  I like the idea that a viewer will be attracted to the light and color in the work while viewing from a ‘safe’ distance, and will only notice the disturbing parts once they have come close enough to really see.

AL: Has this work been placed into any notable public collections? Where do you see it living/existing?

KW: One of my pieces was recently acquired by Lehigh University for their photography collection.  Other than that, my work resides in many private collections.  When I make the work, I don’t really think about where it will ultimately go.  I need to make the work that is on my mind and just hope that someone will want to own it.  I am always touched when the work resonates with a viewer. I see my work within the context of both art and natural history.

Fall Fruits by Kimberly Witham

Fall Fruits © Kimberly Witham

AL: Which is your favorite image and do you have it hanging on a wall (which wall)?

KW: I once heard an expression about artists—that their favorite pieces are the ones they are about to make.   I can’t say I have favorites exactly, but there are images which continue to resonate with me – I find myself thinking – “wow, I made that?”  I am still in the process of moving into my new home, but I do have a print of “On Ripeness and Rot #10 (raccoon)” ready to hang on the dining room wall.  That photograph is an ode to Jan Weenix, a Dutch painter I love.  The image expresses abundance and decay in equal measure.  It reflects my current mind set well.  I also have work by many other artists in my home.  I have some of Sarah Sudhoff’s pieces (we traded years back).  I also have a portrait of Francesca Woodman, and a really beautiful sculpture by a former classmate of mine, Petra Kralickova.

AL: Are you now working on new artworks to add to the ‘Of Ripeness and Rot,’ or are you now developing the next installment of your practice with something new?

KW: Both.  The past year has been very chaotic for me.  My father passed away unexpectedly in April.  In August, I moved to a new house and studio, complete with 5 acres of land to wander and explore.  When in chaos, I tend to become even more introspective.   I have been sketching some images based upon the still life tradition of the ‘laid table.’  While it may sound like a small change, I am trying to work with a horizontal composition and a greater density of objects.  Additionally, I was recently re-introduced to the work of the American painter Charles Sheeler.  Some of his paintings were included in the really excellent American still life exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Sheeler was both a painter and a photographer.  His work is clean, spare and minimal while at the same time quite intricate and beautiful.  For some reason, I find Sheeler’s work to be completely seductive at this moment—perhaps I am seeking order.  I have about 5 new images, working with this spare aesthetic, with plans for several more.

Kimberly Witham‘s solo exhibition, ‘Reap’, is on view at the Filter Photo Space in Chicago, January 6 – February 17, 2017.