Recently, Vanguard discovered the masterful work of photographer Bryon Worthen. Bryon is a fine art photographer who focusses on capturing very dramatic images of taxidermy. Sounds intriguing, right? Well, we thought so too!
For a brand like Vanguard who manufactures products for both the hunting and photography worlds, Bryon represented a unique chance to tap into both subjects simultaneously.
(Vanguard) How did you originally become involved in photography? And how did that evolve into taking portraits of taxidermy?
(Bryon) I have a background in print graphic design and was working at an ad agency in Salt Lake City where I learned product photography back in 2002. So that was really the first taste of photography I had. About 4 years later I became involved with a television production where I learned how to edit video and the art of being a cameraman. When that production ended just over 5 years ago, I was hired by Gunwerks in Cody, Wyoming to film and edit their TV show Long Range Pursuit, where I am currently. 15 minutes from my house there is a wild horse range, and I decided to take a camera with me one day and took one great photo of a wild stallion and I was hooked! Since then I've had a camera with me almost everywhere I go, taking pictures of wildlife, which is what interests me the most.
Getting into the wildlife and taxidermy portraits was interesting. I saw a black and white photo of a zoo animal with a black background that a French photographer took and I was racking my brain at how he lit the scene. Having 15 years’ experience with Photoshop I decided to see if I could duplicate the effect with one of my bighorn sheep portraits I had taken on the bighorn winter range 20 miles west of Cody. To my surprise I not only accomplished my goal, but in my opinion the picture turned out way better than the one I was trying to duplicate.
I posted the image on Facebook and immediately a couple friends wanted to buy prints. A light bulb went off in my head and I thought I was on to something. I set out to find more animals to get up-close pictures of, but with wildlife that’s not the easiest thing to do. So I contacted a local taxidermist to see if I could practice on a few of his mounts. When I posted those on Facebook, they were a hit and some of my friends hired me to do similar pics of their mounts. That was about the start of 2015 and it has just been growing since then. Now I have quite a few taxidermy mount portraits under my belt and they are getting more popular.
(Vanguard) How would you describe your style to someone who is not familiar with your work?
(Bryon) The style of my animal portraits technically is Low Key Photography. Low Key Photography often uses only one key light, where traditional photography uses a key light, a fill light and a back light for illumination. Low key light accentuates the contours of an object by throwing areas into shadow to create contrast.
(Vanguard) When we first started passing around examples of your work at our office, we were surprised at the mix of reactions; especially for a company that is not shy about sharing hunting photos across social media and on our website.
Typically, when you’re showcasing your taxidermy photography, what kind of reactions do you receive?
(Bryon) When I show my taxidermy photography most people are amazed. In fact (and not to brag) I haven't talked to anyone who doesn't like it! I get compliments for my creative use of light and shadow to create emotional images. But when some people (very few so far) find out the subject was a taxidermy mount they're surprised at the beauty, but at the same time seem almost disgusted that I would take pictures of dead animals.
(Vanguard) Exactly! Everyone agreed that the photos themselves are very well taken, but it’s interesting that people react differently to the idea of dead animals as “art” compared to just your run-of-the-mill hunting pics. Again, most of our office loved them, but a couple of individuals had a very… let’s just say uneasy reaction to them!
(Bryon) I’m not surprised as that has exactly been my experience. I have people ask how I got so close to the animals to get such clear and posed pictures, and some people don’t know how to react when they find out they’re taxidermy mounts. But for the most part they have been well received.
(Vanguard) Can you touch on the relationship between photography and hunting? Have you ever experienced difficulty marketing yourself as a photographer whose focus is often on hunting imagery? More specifically, as a photographer who specializes in photographing taxidermy in an artistic way? In other words, do you feel that the photography world fully embraces you, or do you have to be more careful and present different sides of your photography to different audiences?
(Bryon) Great question! I've taken a lot of traditional wildlife pics and a lot of wild mustang pics and the people in the wild horse crowd especially (and a lot in the wildlife crowd) are mostly anti-hunting. When I've posted trophy pics or hunting related pics I noticed people leaving my social media. It bothered me so I had the internal debate to keep posting hunting related pics or not. As far as the taxidermy, for the most part it's been received really well. I recently posted a liger image in a big cat photography group and got the following response...
“I'm not a massive fan of taxidermy subjects, Bryon - I prefer my animals alive and well! However, I really commend you on your photography here - to illustrate this by the merest suggestion of light, is very skillful and just the type of photography I really love. Good work! Hope you soon find some 'live' subjects to photograph - I'd look forward to seeing your other work! Have you not got any wildlife parks or conservation zoos in Wyoming?”
I've tried to be sensitive to those people who might be offended by my photos in fear of losing a potential market for my work, but that has held me back. I've decided to to what I like which are the taxidermy pics and if people don't like it then they don't like it.
Something I would like to do is partner with someone like SCI or Boone and Crocket and get pics of all the record book animals, and through print sales raise money for conservation.
(Vanguard) Do you have the desire to change people’s opinions about hunting through your photography? Do you see an opportunity there to do so, through beautiful imagery?
(Bryon) I'll have to be honest and say I've had the desire to change people’s opinions about hunting through my photography, but the times I've tried to do that for the most part I haven't succeeded. I think most people who don't hunt or haven't been involved with hunting in any way have a preconceived idea of what it is, and unfortunately most of the time it's negative. I've seen people’s attitudes change if they have the opportunity to have a positive experience with hunting, but without that experience I think it's really hard to accomplish. That being said, I've been complimented on my artwork even though they don't agree with the reality that the subject was harvested by a hunter. I'm hoping that experience planted a seed with the person who saw the beauty of a piece of artwork that resulted from the harvest of an animal through hunting, and maybe that experience will somehow alter their view on hunting enough to give it more of a chance the next time they are confronted with it. I'm a pleaser, and I want everyone to like me and my work which makes me extremely obsessive to the tiniest details in my art! This trait also made me sensitive to criticism from the anti-hunting people. I had to make a conscious choice to do what pleases me first and foremost and ignore what negatives come from my subjects being hunted. I'm open to criticism about my art, use of light, editing etc. but when it comes to my choice of subject and its source, the negative doesn't effect me anymore.
(Vanguard) What do you hope to convey through your imagery? What story or feeling do you wish to conjure that maybe the original mounted piece may not tell or convey?
(Bryon) Hard question. All of the taxidermy subjects I've taken pictures of are works of art in themselves. I've thought it's either odd or interesting that I'm creating artwork from someone else's art. But ultimately I hope to capture the animal's majesty and somehow honor the life it lived through my artwork. My goal is to use light and shadow along with the black background to isolate each animal's features to produce a powerful emotional response from the viewer. Also it is my hope that the images of these animals will be ambassadors to their species and show the world how beautiful they really are. With each piece of artwork I sell, a portion of the earnings is donated to wildlife conservation. So in fact these animals are helping to preserve wildlife, not only through the license/tag sales that were generated from them being hunted, but from what people like me can give back to the wildlife that has given us so much.
Bryon Worthen’s images are available for fine art prints, and Image licensing is available.
Bryon will also photograph your mount, and can create multiple prints so that you can enjoy it at your home, office or cabin.