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Bringing Back a Life

“I realized just because you wear business clothes to work doesn’t mean you’ve got it made” - David Williamson

A visual narrative profiling Austin, Texas based Wildlife Designs Taxidermy. Words by Kristen Munson.

Tanning a hide, stretching it across a manikin, and mounting it to a wall is more about preserving a story than an animal skin. It is about connecting us to a moment we can never have back, but often wish we could.

Taxidermy is art that requires a death. It is designed to resurrect life. Each project begins by stripping an animal skin of its meat and internal organs before curing the epidermis to draw out moisture and blood. The first animal David Williamson fleshed was a lion. He was 11. At the time he thought it was cool. Then things changed.

Williamson is not what you might expect when meeting a taxidermist for the first time. He is not a recluse. He is not Norman Bates. Williamson is an affable father of two with a close shaved beard and the thick, black-rimmed glasses of an architect. Or in his case, a certified public accountant. As you walk up the driveway of his ranch home in Austin, Texas, the head of a nilgai – an antelope native to the grasslands of India – stares you down. Williamson is sweeping out the garage.

He hands you a mug of coffee and leads you to the backyard carrying two fresh deerskins. Sun streams onto a patch of grass covered with a wooden board. He examines a pelt draped across a plank. Underneath it blood-soaked salt dries brown in the sun. Williamson unfurls the two skins across the wood and reaches for a bag of salt.

“We are dealing with things that will rot or decay,” he says.

Williamson is a third generation taxidermist. He learned the science of the profession as a child in his father Robert’s shop, a building the two raised together on a two-acre parcel of land in the panhandle of Texas. Williamson, 28, spent a decade learning how to tan leather, build manikins, and mount animals from grizzly bears and bobcats to elk and zebras. But it wasn’t something he liked to talk about.

“I thought there was a lot of shame to it,” Williamson says smoothing a layer of salt across the pink flesh. “I thought it was a crude way to make a living. I remember all of our customers coming dressed in business clothes and thinking, ‘Oh man, those guys, they’ve got the good life … I didn’t like to tell people my dad was a taxidermist.”

Williamson’s parents divorced when he was a baby. Growing up he spent weekends working in the taxidermy shop with his dad. By age 10, Williamson was his father’s right hand man after he broke his back in a motorcycle accident. During reconstructive surgery his father flatlined on the table.

“He died. For a few minutes he died, but he was brought back to life,” Williamson says before heading back into the garage.

As he grew older, Williamson’s father wanted him to be his protégé. And Williamson didn’t. One afternoon after an argument Williamson’s father fired him. He was 19.

Williamson moved from Amarillo to Austin where he apprenticed for a local taxidermist to pay the bills while he studied accounting. He learned new techniques that produced better quality mounts and twice as efficient. After graduating Williamson scored a desk job. He worked long hours. He became confused.

“I realized just because you wear business clothes to work doesn’t mean you’ve got it made,” Williamson says.  “It’s really not that great to sit on your ass all day in front of the computer.”

Around the same time his father’s health began to fail. Williamson helped him close the shop and sell his home. Before leaving the property Williamson claimed some of the tools. Afterward he read the book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford. He began telling people he was a CPA and a taxidermist. He found that no one ever asked about accounting.

Taxidermy makes some people uncomfortable. Animal skins are commonly worn in the form of shoes or draped around waists and stored in back pockets in the name of fashion. But the moment a skin is mounted to a wall, taxidermy becomes something macabre. For many people, death is something to put in the ground or burn to ashes, not put on display in the family room. However, taxidermy is a story people want to tell.

“They always want to tell the story,” Williamson says.

A former customer of his father’s recently told Williamson one he had never heard before. Years ago the man witnessed Williamson’s dad arguing with a customer about a duck mount. The customer insisted he had requested the duck be posed in a standing position, not flying. Williamson’s father insisted he hadn’t.

“So my dad turns around and walks to the house and he grabs a shotgun,” Williamson says. “He walks back to the shop, grabs the duck, throws it up in the air and shoots it. So that was my dad in a nutshell. You just don’t meet people like him anymore. He just didn’t have respect for artificial things.”

Williamson splays a freshly tanned deerskin atop his workbench. With a paring knife he shaves off portions around the nose. He scores the ears to prevent them from warping as they dry. Williamson threads a needle with fishing wire and sews tiny holes in the skin.

“It’s pretty cool to think this is just an old skin,” he says. “In a few hours it’s going to feel like it’s alive.”

Williamson’s father was a nurse as well as a taxidermist. He was a Vietnam War veteran and occasionally took in homeless men and women. He gave shelter to the outcasts in society. He was always poor. And he spent decades fighting with his inner demons. He died in 2010.

“I never really understood the whole rest in peace thing,” Williamson says while sewing the deerskin. “But that was the only thing I could think after he was dead. I hope that saying is true. I hope there is peace. I hope he is at peace.”

Williamson mixes a salve of epoxy and fiberglass and scoops it into the empty ear pockets of the deerskin. He molds them into an alert position and waits for them to dry before stretching the hide over the manikin. Afterward he inserts glass eyeballs into the sockets and gently smoothes strips of clay around them with his thumb. Dozens of antlers once belonging to foraging deer, elk, and reindeer hang from the rafters above. Three newspaper stories from the Amarillo Globe News are framed on the wall and span nearly 40 years between publishing. One is a profile of his grandfather and the other two features are about his father.

“Taxidermy is kind of a lonely profession, but you find in any business that people stay in it because they love the work,” Williamson’s dad says in one story.

Williamson listens to the quote while tucking the skin around the deer’s eyes into grooves carved into the manikin with a mottling tool.

“One of the problems I had with taxidermy was I didn’t feel there was a purpose to it,” he says. “Rich dudes are basically just hunting animals and it’s this way of showing off their socioeconomic status … but then I started doing CPA work and the same questions were being brought up. Is taxidermy a right or a good profession? Is being a CPA a right or moral profession? Who knows? Is it essential to society? Maybe if you just find something that you just halfway enjoy doing that will actually help out the world a lot more.”

He laughs.

“Maybe that’s the problem with taxidermy,” Williamson says. “There’s so much time to think you just think yourself into these spirals.”

Taxidermy is handling the remains of the dead. This can force one to think about how you live your life. On the windowsill between a canister of WD-40 and a jar of paintbrushes, a plastic Folger’s coffee can rests at eye level. It doesn’t contain coffee grinds.

“I think about my dad quite a bit. Basically all he lived on was cigarettes, Folger’s coffee, and work, so I figured this was a good place,” he says lightly tapping the lid. “I kept those specifically because he’s always been out in the workshop with me. That’s really my main memory of him. We went hunting a few times, we went on a few little road trips, but by and large all him and I did was work together. I think I owe the majority of the skills that I have to him.”

Nowadays Williamson works alone. If he listens closely he might hear his infant daughter crying inside the house or his 3-year-old son Wyatt laughing from the other side of the garage door. From the workshop Williamson can hear birds chirping and cars driving down the street. His mind wanders.

“It definitely does make you think about your own mortality,” he says. “You see how quickly life can be taken from you. I’m pretty sure that if we really grasped how short our lives are we would live it a little differently.”

Williamson recently quit his full-time job at an accounting firm and launched his business Wildlife Designs Taxidermy. Before giving his notice he asked his boss if he could work 40 hours a week for the next 15 years and delay pursuing the path to partner. His boss said it doesn’t work that way.

“I try to learn from people who have gone before me,” Williamson says. “Typically with men, their greatest regret is not spending enough time with their kids.”

An hour later two men arrive to collect their trophies. A common hunting tradition is to have the first big game you kill mounted. The older man, wearing blue jeans and a cotton dress shirt, points out the various deformities in the antlers of his deer.

“They’re all unique,” he says tracing a point with his forefinger.

The younger man nods but never says a word. He looks as though he came from band practice. The father shakes Williamson’s hand and leads his son down the walk. The two men climb into the cab of a pickup truck.

“They’re both pretty different, but I think hunting is something they both share,” Williamson remarks as the truck pulls away from the curb. “[Hunting] is a really long process. You have to drive out to a ranch. You usually sit in a deer blind and wait for a deer to come by. Then you shoot it together. You skin it and gut it together.”

Sometimes all a father and son have in common is the time they spend together.

“Most of this is just preserving the memory,” Williamson says gesturing to the mounts in his garage. “To some people it’s art, to some people it’s decoration, but to those guys when they look at those horns, it’s going to take them back to the hunt and they’re going to remember it.”

He lifts a green wing teal from a shelf below the framed newspaper clippings. Williamson’s dad mounted it for him years earlier.

“I shot this duck. And I remember the story of my dad and me,” Williamson says. “When I see it I don’t really look at the duck so much. It takes me back to the moment and it’s really nice.”

“Blink” | 15 seconds in motion

Keeping things fresh has never been higher on the list. While there's never a shortage of tasks to juggle, we are always working to evolve amid the ever changing worlds of still and motion capture. We collaborated with Travis Olson of Acre Design on our latest endeavor BLINK. “The ability to tell powerful, emotional stories in any medium is Jonathan’s strength. Blink becomes a way to highlight that.”

With Instagram's 15 second video medium as the stage, we are setting out to produce a series of video shorts throughout the next year. It's a simple idea that should provide a quick glimpse or "blink" of recent projects that have just been shot. Our work is discovered in a variety of ways and Instagram as well as Twitter are top of the list in terms of relevant platforms to showcase visuals. As is often and typically the case, the post-production process behind video edits is so long that it can take months to complete an project. With Blink it's much more immediate and certainly a quick, engaging channel to share recent work.

Thanks to Adam Duguay and the crew at Coelement who brought the branding elements together, their animation skills sweeten up the start of each BLINK.

Check it out by following @jchapmanphoto on Instagram.  It'll only take 15 seconds…!

Matrix | Fitness Enlightened

A stone washed smooth by the water's edge, a palm frond cutting the early morning light, natural elements of wood, cotton, steel seamlessly complimenting our surroundings.  When a call came through earlier this year to produce a still and motion based lifestyle campaign centered around health, wellness, enlightenment, and fitness (with a likely location being Hawaii) we were certainly intrigued. 

One of the top tiers in fitness equipment Matrix Fitness certainly stands apart and on the top rung.  Found in high end resorts and hotels around the world, we were introduced to the multi-faceted lineup with locations as diverse as Toronto and Maui serving as backdrops for talent and machines alike.

One of the many incentives of traveling to diverse locations are the uniquely varied textures found in and around each environment.  Being aware of and capturing the abstract, colorful, and unscripted details that surrounded our locations was an integral part of the shot list and project objectives.  This was an early cue that the desired creative visuals were right in line with how we thrive and find ourselves the most excited behind the camera.

Out of all the locations, Maui was definitely at the top of the list.  Warm sun, ocean breezes, and a whole host of other positives combined to make this a unique and ideal place to support the shoot.  Looking back at the visuals we captured, it could not have been successful without our amazing crew who kept things fresh and spirited in all of these varied locations.  A big shout of thanks "Mahalo" to Matthew Slimmer for his work producing this project that spanned over two months of on and off travel to four different markets.

Enjoy a sample of our favorite stills as well as the final video, edited by Minneapolis based Nathaniel Schmidt

Fall has come and seems to be on the way out for us who call the Midwest home.  The temps are definitely on the decline as another year winds down.  Thankfully luck seems in our favor as we have our sights on warmer envrons for the next few weeks with upcoming travel to Los Angeles and Austin, TX in our sights.  As always, thanks for checking in and taking a moment to catch up on the latest at JCP!

New Man on Deck- Joseph McMahon Joins JCP

With the vetting process over, we are psyched to announce and introduce Joseph McMahon as JCP’s Media Production Assistant. Much like all of those we collaborate with, Joseph will be wearing many-a-hat. While most of Joseph's energy will be focused on the motion side of our visuals, his role and creative ideas will flow into all of our projects in addition to the realm of post-production.

Having Joseph on board will further fuel our abilities and initiiatives. We are already planning an extended Instagram series as well as working to shed light on past visuals from our vault, work that has yet to be exhibited. This is his third week and Joseph has already taken part in two shoots and has been editing at full-steam. It's been a great start so far and we look forward to introducing you all to Joseph at the studio or on set in coming days. 

"My path to JCP is a long and windy road through retail, banking, personal side projects, and unique word of mouth introductions."  You can learn a little more about Joseph through the interview below.

A Conversation with Joseph McMahon as Interviewed by Charles Youel

What inspires you? In general, or just lately…

The thing that inspires me the most with film is when I feel like I am being treated like an adult. I love a film that doesn’t have characters explain to me what is happening in the film with exposition. My favorite storytelling comes from visual vignettes that connect together to explain a complicated plot structure that puts my brain to use and makes me think, “I never would have thought of doing that”.

How has what you do (photography and video) changed the way you look at the world?

Filmmaking has slowly and surely changed the way I look at the world. The longer I have been making films I think about how a moment in my day could be an interesting scene, how I would film it, and if my life was more interesting, how the scene should have evolved or ended. Most of my films started from me daydreaming about something that happened to me during the day.

I think the biggest part of a good filmmaker’s life is being interested in people and situations. So many times in my life friends get in conversations with a stranger and they wish they could get out of the conversation immediately and I want to spend the entire night listening to the stranger talk. Learning what makes someone tick is fodder for a good character in a film.

As a lover of visual language, I enjoy thinking about how to photograph any situation I am in. I have a philosophy that there is a good picture available in any space at any time. Most of the time I take a picture with my phone when I am in a situation where I imagine no one would think of taking a picture and trying to find something visually fascinating about that space.

Can you think of one event or happening in the past that led you toward photography/filmmaking?

As a child, you don’t really understand what makes a photograph, movie, or anything visual “good” or composed well. There are moments in my life where a film or photograph changed my thought pattern about what a film or photograph could be. Those moments made me obsessed with finding more films and photographs that did something new and interesting that I hadn’t seen before.

What actually led me to want to create images rather than just appreciating them was from my older brothers. My two brothers made movies when they were young with a Super 8 camera, made a video game with an Atari when I was growing up, and had me act in a few homemade movies. It was the most fun I have ever had and the energy in the process of idea, writing, planning, production, editing, and final product was when I knew I would be making films the rest of my life.

Tell me about your favorite place in the world.

Thinking about this question made me laugh because I thought about all of the cool places I love to go but in reality I love being in a creative area where I can feel completely comfortable. My favorite place is wherever there is a safe space to plan my next project with friends or by myself in my apartment sitting on the couch with my laptop and zoning out to music thinking about the next sentence to write in a script.

What sets your work apart?

No matter what part of the process I am working on (Editing, filming, directing, writing, ideation) I want to bring the audience into the narrative or experimental work by peaking their interests and fulfilling that interest with what they didn’t expect but still with what makes logical sense.  A project I directed and produced for the band "Squares" was showcased and featured by City Pages as one of the 10 best videos of 2014.

Describe some of your little-known talents.

I can do a killer karaoke version of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. And when I say “killer” I mean that you will be entertained by the chaos and not by the amazing voice.

I don’t have a lot of times to showcase it, but if someone puts on Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, I can bust a pretty serious move.

What are people most surprised to learn about you?

This is an easy one. When I tell people that I made a full length rap album when I was 19, they don’t believe me.

McDonald’s | Around the world

The man in black once sang "I've been everywhere" and how true it is with our on-going travels for McDonald's.  In previous posts we've recounted our tales of far off lands including our neighbor to the North, the exotic far East, and the land down under to name a few.   After the latest globe trotting adventure for the golden arches, we certainly added a few pins to the map as we worked our way through Europe and the UK.  There is something special about travel and its uncanny ability to freeze time.  Night becomes day and day becomes night with the time zone changes and immediate insertion into another culture and way of life.

With our first stop in Hamburg, Germany, we kicked off the tour in full force and set the pace for the rest of our time abroad.  The shoot days were occupied with a nice mix of working from a designated shot list as well as gathering spontaneous, impromptu moments that have become one of our signature trademarks.  In lieu of air travel from Hamburg to Munich, we opted for the EIS high speed rail service to reach our second city destination.  The train has long been a favorite way to reach point B and it allowed us to see the countryside that only rail travel allows for.  Munich was incredibly beautiful and busy with all of the Oktoberfest revelers in full traditional Bavarian dress.  We even managed to take time out one evening to put back a beer stein or two, experiencing the festivities first hand.  How is that for mixing work and play?  It's not everyday your shoot ends with an evening of entertainment with Oktoberfest as the backdrop.

The next leg of the journey landed us in the heart of Catalunya - Barcelona, Spain.  We had one shoot day here near the Plaza de Catalunya, which sits at the top of the famous Las Ramblas.  The city of Barcelona is rich with culture, art everywhere, and threads of history as intertwined as the spaghetti of narrow streets themselves.  Although our time was limited in this city we captured a myriad of great imagery and met a lot of wonderful Catalunyans in the process.

The flight from Spain to Manchester went quickly and once again we found ourselves in another culture, another landscape.  The focus point for our first day in the UK was the home of the Beatles - Liverpool.  Often the subjects we profile are everyday people stopping in for a beverage or a bite to eat that can spare five minutes of their time to be a part of our shoot.  We always meet interesting people from all walks of life and with the added personalities of our local production assistants we walk away with great stories and a slew of memories from each destination.  The UK adventure began in the northwest and brought us south to our second shoot city in Wales and back up to the greater London area for our final day of the photo shoot.  All in all, not a bad way to spend nearly two weeks on tour, creating another visual library of still and motion assets for McDonald's.

Enjoy a few of our favorite still images from the Euro tour and look for the upcoming video reveal down the road.

Acura Style | “Perfect Match”

"Perfect Match, Minnesota Photographer Jonathan Chapman Takes A Fresh Look At The Sport of Kings..." 

So goes the title and intro to a visual profile featured in Acura's "Style" magazine.  The story highlights a collection of JCP images that showcase the sport of polo.  The creative director from Acura's quarterly magazine reached out earlier this year inquiring about a collection of work we had produced highlighting the sport of polo.  In addition to licensing several of the images, they interviewed myself about my process and approach to shooting. It's always a welcomed compliment to have your work picked up for placement and acknowledgement of one's craft in a venue such as this.  In a world of all things digital, it's sweet to see one's work in print.  Even sweeter paried with a brand such as Acura.

JEEP | Hana Highway, Maui

Set amid the wilderness and remote mountain terrain, Maui's Hana Highway was an ideal landscape to document a thrilling "day in the life" journey of two young, intrepid travelers.  This spec. commercial showcases the Jeep Wrangler's trailblazing spirit against a backdrop as unique and thrilling as the Jeep itself. 

Produced and shot this past spring, this project came to life through support and collaboration with Matthew Slimmer and Maui's, Hana Productions.  Hawaii, and Maui's Hana Highway in particular could not have offered a more visual backdrop for this story; an homage of sorts honoring the adventurous nature surrounding the Wrangler Unlimited and iconic Jeep brand.

Directed by Jonathan Chapman / JCP
Producer - Matthew Slimmer
Edit - Quenna Rae Gregorio
Director of Photography - Jonathan Chapman
2nd Camera / Movi operator - George Russell
Production Support / Assistant Camera - John Fontana
Production Assistant - Barton Hrast
Talent - Kelly Gillet-Shinn / Kenneth McNickle
Location Scouting / Production Logisitics - Hana Productions
Hair / Make-up - Camille Kozuki
Audio - "Orchestral 212" by Asche & Spencer

JCP Vol. 3 Promo

Proofs have arrived and are looking mighty sweet.  Vol. 3 of the JCP promo is underway and will be hitting a broad range of national and international mailboxes over the next few weeks.  Stay tuned, this is our finest to date thanks to the design work of Eight Hour Day and wordsmithing copy talents of Carolyn Petrie

Behind The Lens - Minneapolis, MN “Adidas”

We are proud to release the latest episode of our Behind the Lens series, "Adidas - Minneapolis, Minnesota".  This 3rd installment offers a detailed look at the making of the spec. / test project, "Adidas: Head to Head."  The project showcases a literal “head to head” match-up of two rising stars in the world of table-tennis.

Collaboration has never been more of a key element in the creative industry.  Working on this production, our most elaborate test shoot to date, we tapped some of Minneapolis’ most talented production partners for a fast-paced evening of action sports capture.  This Behind the Len’s episode offers a glimpse into life on set shooting and producing visuals, as well as the key developments in post-production through editing, music and sound design. 

A common reaction to our Behind The Lens videos is that people don't realize just how much support and behind the scenes manpower goes into creating a project on this scale.

The episode was shot and edited by Nathaniel Schmidt, view the full list of cast and crew below and keep an eye out for some of them in the video.

Produced and Directed by Jonathan Chapman / JCP


Production - Bobbi Peacock


Assistant to Producer - John Fontana
Edit - Nathaniel Schmidt


Assistant Director - Tony Franklin
Director of Photography - Alex Horner
Aerial Photography - Picture Factory
Second Camera - Eric Schleicher


First A/C - Jules Ameel
Talent - Ahmed Zain / Henry Klaverkamp
Behind the Scenes - Nathaniel Schmidt / Bill Hickey
Art Department / Props / Wardrobe - Alison Hoekstra

Lighting - Michael Handley / Tasty Lighting Supply
Location Scout - Anne Healy 


Production Assistant - Angie Marasco
Production Assistant - Nicole Klein
Production Assistant - Jaclyn Greeman
Color Grading - Jonathan Chapman
Original Music - Nick Mihalevich / Cape Status
Behind the Lens Music Track - Egg Music
Foley Artist - Nick Leisenheimer

Purina Pro Plan | In Motion

In our previous post, Purina Pro Plan | Santa Barbara, we shared a selection of  still images from our production for Purina and Colle+McVoy out on the coast of Southern California.  The following offers a motion based "day in the life" look, highlighting the sights, sounds, and overall competitive spirit that make up a dog show.

While we have shot at a number of dog shows across the country for the Purina Pro Plan brand, this was the first production where video capture was requested and added to the scope of our objectives.  Capturing motion visuals was certainly a natural pairing considering the subject matter and location.  Offering a behind the scenes look, this JCP Director's edit showcases nearly every aspect from early morning preparation, through the final hours when ribbons and trophies are passed out for the top prize, best in show.

For the role of DP / Director of Photography we were lucky to once again secure Ray Tsang of Stillmotion out of Portland, Oregon to capture the motion elements of this production.  We had a great experience working with Ray on a similarly fast-paced shoot for Target's C-9 brand, jockeying shots amid the harried streets of San Francisco. 

This project for Purina was a truly unique opportunity for our production team.  The possibilities are endless when there is a mix of creativity and visuals to tell the story in front of us.  Ideas were bounced around and imagery was shared in real time, inspiring us all to push the boundaries of what the agency and team at Colle+McVoy had assembled as our shot list.  Creative Director Derek Till kept us on the move, checking off his list of breeds to capture as every hour meant a new set of contenders in the arena.

Thanks to all agency, client, and crew members for helping bring this to life.  It's projects like this that underscore the excitement of creative collaboration.  Enjoy a few moments of what our experience looked like, through the lens, at the Purina Pro Plan dog show.