In Still Life, Melissa Milgrom peels back the skin on contemporary taxidermy, revealing all the blood and guts of a hobby focused on making the dead appear alive.
She profiles a motley assortment of practicing taxidermists who, she discovers, deeply revere the critters they're fleshing, macerating, and sculpting into art. There's in-your-face Emily Mayer, head of Britain's Guild of Taxidermists and best known for her work on the cow heads and animal parts in Damien Hirst's controversial art pieces. And then there's Ken Walker, determined to win Best of Show at the World Taxidermy Championships (WTC) with his re-creation of the extinct prehistoric Irish elk. Milgrom also hangs out with the folks working behind the scenes at the Smithsonian as it prepares a new mammal exhibit (they use Garnier Nutrisse Luscious Mango hair dye to darken the Bengal tigers stripes) and takes taxidermy lessons from the family who works with the American Museum of Natural History's exhibits. Naturally, reading about a trade whose tools include brain spoons, eyehooks, and tail splitters makes the retch factor high, especially when Milgrom gets her hands dirty to mount a squirrel for the WTC. The judge's deem her entry subpar (its eyes aren't aligned, and anatomically, it's a Barbie doll), but though Milgrom is unable to make her squirrel appear lifelike, she does succeed in animating the dark and strange world of taxidermy.