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BEST OF 2014, Courtney Reints
Minneapolis, MN
Courtney Reints investigates various aspects of taxidermy in her fine art series “Moving Skin.” Her images of trophies made from the spoils of war are juxtaposed with photographs of natural landscapes and still lives.

© Courtney Reints

© Courtney Reints

“My title surfaced from the Latin meaning of the word taxidermy: taxis ‘arrangement’ and derma ‘skin’. I adjusted a tad and decided the title ‘Moving Skin’ would be very fitting,” she says. “It’s all about the trophy. Taxidermy can resurrect an animal’s form as a symbol of achievement, the ultimate document of a hunt’s fortune. Some remains are revered, while others are disregarded, but all become an authentic record of antler, feather and flesh.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Courtney Reints: I’d consider myself a working photographer since spring of 2013, right after graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD).

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?

CR: Becoming a member of ASMP was recommended by my MCAD professor while taking the Professional Practice course. I joined at the student level in 2012.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

CR: As of late, I believe the most valuable aspect for me has been being selected as one of ASMP’s Best of 2014 photographers.

ASMP: Do you have a favorite ASMP-related story to share?

CR: I only recently found out that my coworker, Rya Priede, who is our framer at The Lab, is married to Karl Herber, the president of my local chapter. I knew her husband Karl was a local working photographer, but did not know his title until recently having a conversation with her about ASMP.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

CR: In terms of genre, I’d consider my photographic specialties to be: fine art, documentary, still life and landscape. But, in terms of subject matter, my most recent specialties are: banal and lull moments, the Midwest, home, culture, taxidermy, death, nature and animals.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

CR: Networking; it’s all about who you know. I believe it’s the most valuable tool, but also one of the hardest for me to maintain.

ASMP: What piece of gear could you not do without?

CR: For obvious reasons I could not do without my camera, a Nikon D800. I prefer to travel light, always with a camera, sometimes a tripod, mostly depending on the lighting situations. I feel like anything else really gets in my way of finding and creating the photographs I want to make. For me it’s not about the gear, but the raw images I see and want to capture.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

CR: I think that, in general, my approach to photography and my subjects has been done before, but I do have a style that can be recognized, even if I’m not entirely sure how to put my finger on it. It may have to do with my stable compositions, focused eye, color palette, use of natural light, and cohesive subjects that will always coexist together and grow in my archive. But I should probably be asking you that question; what do you see in my images that set them apart?

ASMP: How and when did you first become interested in taxidermy? What’s the primary inspiration for your photographic series “Moving Skin?”

CR: The idea of Moving Skin began in my Photographic Idea course at MCAD. Students were prompted to create a project related to the idea of the “expressive body.” Since I tend to shy away from portraiture and assumed that most students would be photographing people, I wanted to find other types of bodies that were still considered “expressive.” Taxidermy was my solution. Around the same time, I also remember regularly photographing, and admiring, a deer mount that someone had hung at the top of a 20-foot sound barrier wall near my apartment. The fur eventually had fallen off the nose, exposing the orange taxidermy form underneath. Down the road, there was also a pheasant displayed on the wall in the same fashion. Both are now long gone, but I have the photographs.

ASMP: Please talk about the meaning of your series title “Moving Skin.” What’s the most important thing you’re looking to communicate with this work?

CR: The title arose from my visit to Taxidermy Unlimited in Burnsville, Minnesota. It was my first real shoot of the project. No meeting had been planned, but I showed up one afternoon with my camera and hoped for the best. I talked to the owner, Marv, for quite awhile before gaining access to photograph his shop. I remember him chain-smoking cigarettes in his office while telling me stories about his 30-year experience in the industry. Not too long into our conversation, he called his wife in to “check out this fox.” He was referring to me.

After wandering around the workshop for a while, I began to ask another employee some questions. He was explaining the process of mounting African animals to me, which this particular shop seemed to have in abundance. When a hunter goes on safari in Africa for trophies, the animal is skinned on site, and then sent directly to their esteemed taxidermist back in the States. They receive boxes of skin. Boxes of Skin — I always wanted those words to be used together somehow, but it didn’t work for me as an all-encompassing title. During our conversation, the employee also explained the Latin meaning of the word taxidermy. That’s where my title surfaced: taxis (arrangement) derma (skin). I adjusted a tad, and decided that the title “Moving Skin” would be very fitting.

I began the project intending to communicate a photojournalistic approach, looking deeper into the culture of taxidermy. But for me, the project seemed to evolve into an exploration of what taxidermy tries to express through the form of mounted animals. It is all about the trophy. Trophies made from literally moving skin from one form to another.

ASMP: Some of your images are made in the context of a natural environment and others are not. Please talk about the effect this has had on viewers.

CR: I think that having variety in a few specific types of imagery can make a project more interesting as a whole. Each type could be considered its own exploratory project (still lives, landscapes, etc.) but each piece speaks more powerfully when displayed together under a generalizing title. Then the work becomes less pointed and it allows a viewer his or her own interpretation.

ASMP: Where did you obtain the taxidermy that’s not in its natural environment?

CR: I did not actually obtain any taxidermy during this project. The animals (and animal parts) displayed as still lives with white backgrounds, are all frozen and fully intact. Most of them were gifted to me, or pointed out for me to harvest. Much like a taxidermist, I had a collection of animals in my freezer that I felt compelled to manipulate and display as my own trophies.

ASMP: Are you a hunter yourself, or are others in your family? If so, what’s your most interesting hunting experience?

CR: I do not hunt myself, but I have plenty of family members who do. A lot of my relatives in South Dakota are avid hunters.

ASMP: Hunting an animal for sport is quite a controversial subject these days. What are your thoughts about this?

CR: I understand the controversy and also the culture in which it exists. Hunting is a long-standing tradition that challenges specific skills and abilities, and also provides much income due to its existence. While I do not condone the killing of endangered species, I do understand the need to manage overpopulation in order to sustain ecosystems. Often, hunters can aid in that process. Most of the hunters I know also utilize the meat from their kills, and treasure it equally alongside their mounted trophies. I see the art of taxidermy as another form of recycling the lives that are lost. I don’t believe in hunting strictly for the sake of a kill. I think that many who are considered hunters for “sport” feel the same way.

ASMP: Do you often know the hunters who’ve killed the animals in your pictures? Do you have the opportunity to talk with them and hear stories of the hunt?

CR: I knew most of the hunters I reached out to, or I made a connection through someone I knew personally. I like to hear about all of their experiences, and of course everyone loves to tell their story, but I can’t necessarily choose one that’s most memorable. Partly because I am more fascinated by observing the mounts and the craft of the taxidermy itself. I got asked multiple times if I could tell the difference between good and bad taxidermy yet. I am now very aware.

ASMP: In your artist statement you talk about taxidermy being a symbol of achievement for the hunter. Please elaborate on this thought.

CR: The mounted animal is often what’s treasured long after the experience of a hunt is over. The taxidermy is revered, as it shows a hunt’s success to others who share the same values. It is a symbol of achievement, a symbol of conquest displayed through a trophy.

ASMP: Your other series, A Slightly Uneasy, Melancholy Oasis (which contains images you submitted to the Best of ASMP) explores the compulsion to collect and the impossibility of absolute collections. What connections do you make between hunting and collecting?

CR: I’ve always liked to collect, and I am fascinated by science and everything natural. I enjoy ideas of accumulation and gradual personal progress to a final goal, a goal that has no limits unless given. As a photographer, my image archive is my most prized possession. I believe that hunters value collecting in the exact same way. An experience is had, with the goal to take away something physical, a souvenir to remember. Much like photographic collecting, a hunter’s trophy is obtained by shooting, capturing, and manipulating what is desired to be the next notch in your belt. Always striving for something grander, and more breathtaking than its predecessor.

ASMP: Your images have been included in several exhibitions. What kind of response have you received from these exhibits?

CR: I believe that my photographs have been well received. Maybe that’s because I’m based in the Midwest. It is sometimes hard to tell if you are receiving true criticism or just “Minnesota Nice.”

ASMP: Please describe how your current project has affected your career and business to date. Has the project generated new clients or markets for your work? Has it given you new visibility with existing contacts?

CR: The real work in Moving Skin began on a good note after receiving the Minnesota State Arts Board’s Artist Initiative Grant. I spent one year shooting, editing and producing an exhibition to finalize the grant year, making several connections along the way. Since then, I’ve been submitting the project to various calls for entry to gain more visibility for my work. I’m still hoping that something bigger will come my way, in the form of new clients or career opportunities.

ASMP: What type of camera gear did you use for this series? Do you do much postproduction work on the images?

CR: For most of this series, I used my Nikon D800. I shoot in RAW and adjust my files both in Camera Raw and Photoshop. I mostly edit through selections in multiple curve layers and color balance. I never want my images to look over processed or heavy-handed, but I do actually spend a lot of time manipulating my files to look “natural.” Editing for print is the most laborious task. I go through many rounds of printed proofs to ensure the final output will be as neutral, and realistic as I remember seeing the images first hand. Color is very important to my work.

ASMP: Please talk about the lighting techniques you use in your work. Do you prefer natural lighting or crafting a certain look with your use of light?

CR: I really only use natural and ambient light in my work as of late. My crafted still lives may incorporate a reflector to bounce in more fill (keeping it low key with a white piece of foam core). But, for the most part, I’m drawn to the shapes of natural light that form within the shadows. When I’m choosing a composition in the field, those pockets of sun draw me in like a moth to a flame. It is hard for me to see anything else.

ASMP: You received a BFA in photography from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design in 2013. What’s the most important thing you learned from your education? What were you not taught in school that you wish you had learned?

CR: I believe the most important thing I took away from MCAD, educationally, was being exposed to the type of work that I realized I wanted to make. There are things in art that can be taught, but finding your own voice in the sea of everyone else seems to happen unconsciously. MCAD also provided me many connections that I otherwise would not have had, through internships, professors and peers.

One negative comment about the program is the fact that if you are working towards your BFA, you are almost strictly being trained as a fine artist. I would have also liked to focus more on the business side of the art world. It’s only after graduation that students reflect on whether or not what they had been doing for the past four years was actually worth it. My field of study became very narrow, and I wish I would have expanded my course work, to learn more skills that would better fit the needs of current creative employers.

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable photographic experience since graduating? What’s been your most valuable life experience?

CR: My most valuable photographic experience since graduating has definitely been receiving the MSAB Artist Initiative grant. It not only provided funds to further my career, but also expanded my network and provided exposure for my work. Not to mention, it’s a great achievement to have on my rèsumé. Some of my most valuable life experiences have happened through travel. Besides most of the United States, I’ve traveled to Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Norway and South Africa. I’m still young, but being away from home and getting to experience another point of view has really been influential, if only to make me more appreciative of what I have. I am always itching to go somewhere new.

ASMP: You’ve assisted photographer Alec Soth. What are the most important lessons you learned from your work with him?

CR: An important thing I took away from Alec was the realization that big-name artists are real people too. He is one of the most down-to-earth, intelligent, and goofy characters you’ll ever meet. Even after spending only a little time with him, you pick up on how relatable and personable he is as a photographer. His work is his life, and I strive to make photographs in the same fashion. Nothing too flashy, just a regular person exploring their interests in a way that others can also appreciate.

I worked at the studio over the summer months, so Alec was often on the road, working on various LBM Dispatches. I became closest with his studio manager, my real boss, Carrie Thompson, whom I also greatly admire as a woman and photographer. The people and atmosphere that make up Soth Studios definitely emits a family vibe, a family that I regret losing regular contact with.

ASMP: In your opinion, what does a photographer want or expect most from an assistant? What are the most important qualities of a good assistant?

CR: A photographer wants an assistant who can anticipate his or her next move, even before they make it. Bottom line: Help make their life easier, accept that you are the pack mule, and don’t get in the way. I think a good assistant is very attentive, personable, has an enjoyable, hard-working attitude, and is willing to do whatever is asked of them, and then some. In the instance of second shooting, it’s also always important to be confident in your own photographic abilities. An assistant’s images can be just as important when covering a large event.

ASMP: Based on your assisting experiences, how important do you feel it is for young photographers to get some assisting work under their belt as they develop their own work?

CR: I think assisting is always a good idea for any photographer, as there is always something to learn. I do, however, think that assisting for assisting’s sake may or may not advance personal work. I believe you will take away the most valuable knowledge when assisting someone who is making the type of photographs you aspire to make. Obviously, different aspects of a shoot are more important than others, depending on the intent of the photographs. I’ve realized that I can “do the work” for various assignments, but in order to advance my personal work in the way I want to, I need to become close with the photographers I can relate to the most.

ASMP: You’re currently working as a production manager at The Lab in Minneapolis. What kinds of responsibilities do you have in this job?

CR: The Lab is a one-stop shop: full-service scanning, printing, imaging, finishing and framing studio. We are located in Northeast Minneapolis, and we cater to clients ranging from individual artists, to museums, galleries, and the like. Being part of a small business of only four employees means that everyone wears many hats. My title, production manager, entails being the face and voice of customer service for clients, taking in orders and building invoices, inventorying and ordering materials for our custom jobs, running errands around town, while also assisting with production when needed. I also manage and produce the fine art print edition orders for the record label Ghostly International, as well as manage a similar fulfillment service to store and ship Artist of the Month Club pieces for the New York-based gallery Invisible Exports.

ASMP: Please talk about the creative community in Minneapolis. Do you find it to be a supportive or lucrative place for a photographer to be based?

CR: In my opinion, fine art does not sell well in Minneapolis. However, there are plenty of local galleries that could be willing to show your work if you can find the right fit. I do find the local creative community to be fairly supportive in that way. There is always something going on in Minneapolis, whether it be gallery openings, film screenings, panel discussions, meet and greets, workshops, or classes, all with a fairly good turnout. I am also pretty lucky to be able to work so closely with, and be inspired by other artists and their work at my 9-5 job. I do not have much experience in Minneapolis’s commercial photography scene, but I can only assume it is more lucrative than the fine art world for emerging photographers.

ASMP: In 2013, you received a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Please describe your process in applying for this grant and how the funds you received were used.

CR: I started the application process as a requirement of taking the course Professional Practice. Students needed to complete the written portion as an assignment, but it was up to us to submit the application during the summer of 2012. I was notified about receiving the grant in January 2013, but the grant year officially began in March. I hadn’t even graduated yet. My professor always advised us to “submit and forget.” It’s been my motto ever since to not get my hopes up about any one opportunity.

Most of my budget went towards exhibition production, and the rest was spent on travel and artist fees. Beyond Minnesota, I ventured to South Dakota and Oregon, looking for taxidermy that I knew existed, while also allowing for photographs of chance throughout my travels. My budgeted artist fees, as well as other personal funds, went straight to purchasing my Nikon D800. The grant allowed me to produce professional quality work without financial strain.

ASMP: Are you currently applying for other grants? If so, do you have a particular strategy for what you submit to?

CR: I’m always looking to apply for grants, fellowships, residencies and exhibitions. As an artist, one of the greatest things about living in Minnesota is the amount of funding that’s available if you know where to find it. I believe we’re still second to the state of New York in terms of funding allocated for the arts. I do not have a strategy for submissions per se, but I do keep lists of all the options I come across that seem worthwhile. I watch the deadlines and submit to as many as I can. I recently applied for the Jerome Fellowship, which seemed like a logical next step for me as an emerging artist.

ASMP: What is your most successful method for building exposure for your projects? Do you employ social media?

CR: I think that word of mouth within my network has probably been the most successful method of building the exposure that really matters. I do use social media to an extent (I have a personal Facebook and artist blog on Tumblr), but not to the degree of posting multiple times a day about the things I’m working on. I use it mostly to announce when my work is going to be a part of something larger than myself, like receiving a grant or being selected to be part of an exhibition. I don’t necessarily have a social media business strategy. I find face-to-face contact to usually have a stronger and more memorable impact.

ASMP: Do you use any traditional means of building awareness for your work, i.e.: exhibition announcements, promo cards, mailers, etc.? What is your opinion about the effectiveness of social media? Do you find it essential or overrated?

CR: I did print exhibition announcements for the opening reception of Moving Skin. I left them various places around town, and also handed them out to people directly. The digital version was posted on my blog, and I also submitted the information to various local event calendars. I think that social media can be effective when used in the right way. I would consider it both essential, and overrated depending on the type and intent of the posts. For instance, one of the things I find most useful is sending electronic invitations via Facebook for an event. All in all, I think the real key for using social media successfully is through linking different platforms together. The point is to make your information more easily accessible.

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

CR: As an artist, the most important business advice given to me was to not pursue a career in the arts, but learn a trade that makes money. It is completely understandable why someone would advise a young person to seek financial stability in our economy, but what about my dreams? Needless to say, I have not followed their advice. Yet.

ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in five years time? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?

CR: I don’t necessarily have a five-year plan, or even a specific dream job I’m working towards. However, I do fantasize about becoming a “famous” or recognizable photographer, whatever that really means. I like to think that you only get places by envisioning that you’ve already arrived. It’s always a comforting thought knowing there is no age limit in a photographic career.