If you’ve ever gone to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, you’ve seen David Schwendeman’s work. Where ever you see a taxidermied bird swooping or animal running, there’s a good chance Schwendeman’s artful hands carefully crafted that creature in lifelike, frozen animation.
Schwendeman was the last full-time taxidermist employed at the museum, a position he held until 1986, when he retired to his hometown studio, in Milltown, New Jersey. Schwendeman passed away in 2012 at the age of 87.
Photographer Steven Hirsh was always interested in taxidermy, too, though he never pursued it as a career. Shortly before Schwendeman’s death, Hirsch had the chance to photograph Schwendeman’s studio. Hirsch shared the photos and some insight into his experience with us.
“As a child one of my favourite places was the Museum of Natural History in New York City. And by far the most interesting area in the the museum was the dioramas,” Hirsch says.
“In the 1980s, I would sneak my SX-70 camera in and make wonderful Polaroids that captured all the animals magnetic and mysterious qualities. So, it wasn’t a coincidence that taxidermy popped into my head one day as a fertile subject for a new project.”
Steven searched for taxidermists on the internet and quickly found Dave Schwendeman’s studio in Milltown, New Jersey. Schwendeman had lived in the town his entire life.
Hirsch arrived at the beautiful white house and ventured inside, still not knowing that this was the studio of the man who created all of the taxidermy he had been so enthralled with all those years ago.
“Eyes stared at me from every direction. Animals filled every nook and corner. Each was brilliant. I realised I had stumbled into a time warp. Nothing was new or modern. Dust filled the air. Lions, owls, crows; every imaginable animal filled every crevice. No empty spaces here,” Hirsch says.
Bruce Schwendeman, David’s son, came out to the front room of the studio and greeted Hirsch. “We talked for a minute and I asked him if I could photograph the interior. With his permission, I spent a few hours there that day making these photos.”
Eventually, David Schwendeman came out and introduced himself. He explained that his father, Arthur, taught him the trade and that he was so pleased to pass it on to his son, Bruce. “It was incredibly fascinating and I couldn’t stop making images,” Hirsch says.
It was only later, after Hirsch had gone home and read an online biography on David Schwendeman, that he learned that Schwendeman had been the main taxidermist for the American Museum of National History.
Hirsch returned to the museum the next day to look at the dioramas again. “Now I had a face to connect to the magnificent displays I had admired as a child. I could visualise the genius that was David Schwendeman,” says Hirsch.