Sleeping Beauty: Erika Larsens photos bestow a sense of grace upon the less than peaceful pastime of hunting.
Seeing the humanity in Americas blood sports
By Kalee Thompson
Lines of pickup trucks pulled up off the side of dirt roads, shotgun blasts echoing though the hills, neon orange vests and caps back in fashionthe signs of the fall hunting season are back in many parts of the country. Here in New York, shots of deer, bear, moose, cougar, turkey and duck hunters now line the walls of the Redux Gallery.
The exhibit may seem out of place in New York City, where Americas 13 million hunters are often associated with some distant, vaguely distasteful world. But through a series of portraits of sportsmen and their kill, documentary photographer Erika Larsen brings a quiet respect to a sport that is often thought of as violent, even idiotic. Although her show is not for the squeamish, Larsens striking photographs provide clues to understanding the hunting life.
Which is what Larsen set out to do for herself several years ago, when she went on her first hunt. A magazine photographer whose portraits have appeared in Time, People, and Field & Stream (for which many of these photographs were shot), Larsen grew up on Marylands eastern shore, amid some of the best bird-hunting grounds in the east. I always found the hunters to be really, really peaceful people, Larsen says of hunting friends from her hometown. But my idea of [hunting] was that its not something thats peaceful. Then she moved to New York and ran into an old boyfriend, a hunter, who told her about an upcoming deer hunting trip. She was curious, and he invited her along.
Several years and dozen of hunting trips later, Larsen has complied 2,200 shots of hunters in their worlds: deer hunters gathering at days end in a camp in New Yorks Adirondack woods; a bear hunter perched in a tree stand high amid a grove of birch trees in Alberta, Canada; victorious hunters displaying their prizes, often with more reverence than pride.
Her portraits in particularmany of bearded men bundled up against the elements, standing with gun or carcass in handportray an overwhelming sense of quiet contentment. These are men with a purpose, the photos seem to say, spending time with their friends and families, comfortable in nature, and with a photographer who had in many cases been camping and hunting alongside them for weeks at a time.
Oh, youre going on your killing spree? Larsons New York friends would joke to her as she prepared to leave the city for another week in the woods. At first it was pretty surprising to people, Larsen says. I think that they didnt really understand it. They thought, Youre a little, short girl, why do you want to go out with all these men who kill animals? But I wasnt attracted to it because it was some weird thing. I was attracted because there was something to learn there.
Over time, Larsen came to see hunting as an art form: The precision involved in taxidermy; the different calls, or whistles, used to attract animals; the skill of tracking animals though dense woods. I find a certain beauty in it, she says. I learned what I really set out to understand. That everything is a cycle. When an animal dies, theres something very honest and very real about it. Ninety-nine percent of the hunters Larsen came in contact with, she said, didnt fit the stereotype of the red neck gun-toter. Theyre very thoughtful people who understand animals and are smart in what theyre doing, Larsen says, noting that many of the people she hunted with are biologists and naturalists.
She also learned that its not all about the kill. Larsen recalls a cougar hunt in which the group spent eight days in the Canadian woods and never saw one of the big cats. They were outhunteda real hunter finds that really great, too, Larsen says. Its not only about getting the animal at the end of the day. Its about the hunt.