Madison photographer Jason Vaughn once thought of deer hunting as violent and unnecessary, but after traveling all over the state, making connections with hunters and photographing their tree stands, he's developed a new appreciation for the tradition.
The deer stands, small treehouse-like shelters that provide hunters a better vantage point, dot the rural landscape and vary in their construction and comfort, if not size. Three of Vaughn's large-scale photos, part of a series called "hide," are on display in the 2013 Wisconsin Triennial, an exhibition featuring all Wisconsin artists that takes place every three years at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The show runs through Jan. 5.
In Vaughn's collection, some of the stands are nestled in a grove of trees while others tower over open fields. One rises up through the fog in a snowy landscape; another is hidden behind a tangle of branches. All of the photos capture the natural beauty of the setting.
In addition to earning a spot in the MMoCA exhibit, Vaughn's project has attracted attention from beyond the gallery walls. It's been picked up by a number of design and photography websites as well as Gizmodo, the popular technology blog, which recently highlighted Vaughn's work and featured a collection of his photos.
Tree stands from all parts of the state are represented in the series of more than 30 photos. Vaughn describes the method he uses to find the stands as "getting lost on back roads and trying to spot them."
During those trips, he spoke with a number of hunters who "emphasize(d) that their pastime is not about violence, but more about oneness with nature and time spent with their children in the stands," he writes in his artist statement. "I wanted these photographs to capture the serenity of that sentiment, and to suggest the dignity that was associated with hunting when it was seen as a means of feeding large families."
Rick Axsom, curator of collections at MMoCA, was one of the team of four who chose the artists for the Triennial. He's an enthusiastic supporter of Vaughn's work, calling it "extremely fresh and high-quality in so many ways."
Vaughn's work is in line with contemporary interest, Axsom said, as the artist works in large scale, color and employs a documentary-style photography called typological photography, where a subject is captured over and over. Vaughn introduces different variables, like seasons, weather, times of day, angles and perspectives into his work.
"It makes a wonderful inventory of these structures," Axsom said. "There is such incredible variety in these stands."
"In a sense, it's biographical in terms of the people who own these stands," he added. "There's something that suggests family and suggests somebody lives there. There's some individual expression."
Vaughn's interest in the subject stemmed from his first visit to the Midwest with his wife, a Wisconsin native.
"When I saw the structures, I was totally perplexed," said the photographer, who grew up in northern California. "I had no clue as to what they were. I thought they were bird watching stands or something."
Through conversations with one of his wife's uncles, an avid hunter, and other outdoorsmen, he started exploring the subject. He learned that the stands had personal meaning to many of the hunters – a permanent structure that could be passed along to their sons.
That idea resonated with Vaughn more when he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011 and had to put the project on hold. His son was three months old, and laying in a hospital bed, Vaughn thought about leaving something to pass along to his own son.
"It was something I was never really forced to think about until that situation came up," he said.
"Having to face mortality so unexpectedly made me come back to the project with a new perspective on the ideas of permanence and impermanence," he writes in his artist statement. "Ultimately, 'hide' became my reflection on legacies and family, my homage to the state that has become my home, and a narrative about accepting change."
He's now doing well, healthwise, and is looking forward to completing the project.
"I'm planning on doing one more heavy winter trip so I have 45-50 and then it will be finished," Vaughn said.
He's been pleased by the interest in his work, noting "I've gotten a great response from it from photography lovers and outdoorspeople and the general public as well."
In the new year, Vaughn is exploring the possibility of publishing his work in a book and looking to exhibit his work in other shows. ￼