Adam Powell captures the awkwardness of dioramas found in the American Museum of National History
Returning with yet another entertaining series, the photographer this time turns his lens on the peculiar world of taxidermy.
- Ayla Angelos
- 11 February 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
A little while ago, Adam Powell stunned us with his humorous story of America’s most famous Hot Dog Contest – described, in his words, as the “Super Bowl of competitive eating”. Well, Adam’s back at it again with yet another wonderful series, this time channeling the strange and dated world of dioramas found in the American Museum of National History.
Before the pandemic, Adam travelled all over the East Coast attending the likes of cat conventions, rodeo’s and heavy metal cruises. He’s got quite the niche, this photographer – often seeking out the weirder activities found within the deep American landscape. Sadly, the pandemic has paused many of these events and he had to completely change his approach to photography. No longer could he attend mass gatherings and observe his subjects ingesting as many hot dogs possible, nor could he galvanise on the intricacies of cat grooming and world-class felines. Instead, he’s spent much of his time photographing the neighbourhoods of New York City, “places mostly devoid of people,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Instead of seeking out absurd situations to take photographs, I now aim to search for or create absurd moments in the everyday.”
This approach has now accrued into a series titled Upper West Side Safari. It was while escaping the winter chill of New York that Adam started heading out to the American Museum of National History, “a gem”, he says, for the fact that most of it hasn’t been updated in decades. It’s ancient decor and artefacts evokes a feeling of stepping back in time – adorned with dioramas and recreations of a bygone era. Dioramas, specifically, are known as three-dimensional, life-size or miniature models, enclosed in a glass case for a museum. It’s a world that merges fiction with science and is often used to freeze a moment in time, usually ranging from props to figures, backdrops to stuffed animals. The original creator of the taxidermy diorama, was a man named Carl Akeley whose first piece was made in 1980 and still stands strong today. It was of the African Hall of Mammals based in the museum in New York, located where the photo of a group of African gazelles was taken.
“The dioramas are beautiful,” says Adam of his findings in the museum. “Stunning paintings are the backdrop to masterful taxidermy and life-like fake plants, but in the age of David Attenborough documentaries they have become somewhat dated. They have developed a slightly awkward charm over the decades, which is what I wanted to highlight with the photos.”
When looking at these bizarre recreations, you’ll start to notice the subtleties within the dioramas themselves; the odd glare and remarks of the animals involved makes each scene feel extraordinary real. It’s anthropomorphism at its finest where, for a moment, you forget that these are taxidermy animals in a museum, placed in front a painting. “All of the backdrop paintings are recreations of real scenes,” says Adam. “Painters would travel all over the world, paint small scale pieces of the scenes and replicate them on a large scale after their travels.”
While working on the series, Adam spent a month and six visits to the museum and, every time he came, he’d discover a new corridor filled with something worth photographing. Luckily for him, the museum remained open during the course of the pandemic, so he was able to capture as many pictures as he pleased. One, in particular, sees a moose bellowing at you; Adam says that this is one of the very few scenes in the museum where it feels as if the animal is interacting with the audience. “It made me feel as though the dear at this moment realised the was eternally trapped behind glass in a museum,” he notes, humorously. Another sees a leopard climbing a rock and placed in front of a glorious mountainous landscape. “I love the textures in this photo,” adds Adam, “the roughness of the rock, the beauty of the leopard’s fur and the calm feeling that the painting in the background creates.” Meanwhile another depicts an ostrich in front of a minimal cloud-like backdrop – that which draws attention to the tiny details of the animal, like the “red in the eye and the flakey skin”, says Adam. “Taking this photo almost felt like I was doing a portrait shoot with the ostrich.”
Adam’s latest offering is joyfully life-like and, having sought to capture the awkwardness of the dioramas, he’s very much succeeded in documenting another humorous (and sometimes eerily sad) flash-lit series. There were some ideas in the making that involved using the scenes surrounding the dioramas to add in context and bring a more human element, but he decided against it. Instead, Adam wanted to keep the focus on the animals, and this technique only adds to the drama; it’s like humans never existed in this world.
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.