In the series Natural Histories, I carry forward the theme of once inhabited spaces. Trace Elements [1998-2003] recorded human detritus left behind in the natural landscape. Abandoned Houses, the Rust Belt photographs, and Baptist Churches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina all attempted to capture a sense of human presence in its very absence. The Nests photographs focused on the unique architectural structures birds had created to shelter their eggs and then abandoned. What remained were, to me, remarkable sculptural artifacts. In Natural Histories, animal skulls, crustacean casings, snake skeletons and other remnants of once living creatures continue this thread of that which is left behind.

The work began in the spring of 2011 after a visit to my local vet. She had a deer skull propped up on a shelf in her treatment room that I took home to photograph. I placed it as I had the nests, on a table by a west-facing window, lit by natural light. When I returned the deer skull [Odocoileus virginianus], I borrowed a ram [Ovis aries]. Once the film was developed and scanned, the image of that ram startled me. It was iconic, with the power and intensity of a tribal mask. It had, for me, a very strong animal presence. I kept that skull in my bedroom for months. I wanted to find more skulls to photograph, and so, once again, the hunt began.

Two different women, each with extraordinary collections of animal skulls, made this project possible. They both were more than generous, sharing their time, their scientific knowledge, and their collections with me. The similarities and differences within the same species as well as markedly different ones, and the scientific cataloguing drew me in and kept me working, from the tiny shorttail shrew [Blarina brevicauda] which measures 7/8th of an inch, to a domestic steer [Bos primigenius] measuring 22½ inches. Dog [Canis familiaris], coyote [Canis latrans], raccoon [Procyon lotor], woodchuck [Marmota monax], gray fox [Urocyon cinereoargenteus], red fox [Vulpes vulpes], bobcat [Lynx rufus], domestic cat [Felis catus], ram [Ovis aries], bear [Ursus americanus], mink [Mustela vison], striped skunk [Mephitis mephitis], beaver [Castor canadensis], opossum [Didelphis virginiana], horseshoe crab molt [Limulus polyphemus], porcupine [Erethizon dorsatum]... There is a blending here, of the scientific with something primal and ineffable. Both of these components drew me strongly to the work.

The shape of skulls varies widely, as do the eye orbits and their placement. Why did each animal evolve in its particular way? Tooth patterns differ enormously, depending on whether the animal hunts or grazes. If they do hunt, what is their prey? An opossum, the most primitive mammal and the only marsupial found in the Northern Hemisphere, has a tiny braincase and more teeth than any other land mammal. The teeth are jagged and fiercely sharp. The gray fox has a proportionately large braincase, with temporal ridges that are well developed in distinctly U-shape. The cranium is pitted, unlike that of the red fox, whose braincase is smooth, and has temporal ridges that converge in a narrow V-shape. Woodchucks have flat skulls. Bears have domed foreheads.

All of these differences, all of the particulars propelled me forward. The skulls felt somehow ancient and compelling, heroic in a way, and beautiful. What remains once the animal has died? The bone, and a lingering sense of something more.

Wendy Burton
Stanfordville, New York
January 2012