I picked the dead coyote up off the road. It had been hit by a car, probably at dawn that morning. It was surprisingly heavy, but its coat was finer and softer than I had imagined. I had never been this close to a coyote before—it was like someone's docile pet dog, all its wildness gone now, just a quiet corpse. A female. I imagined her pack, maybe even her young, waiting for her, calling her. Road kill, large or small, always fills me with anger and sadness. My heart aches for the loss of an innocent life.
A curious cyclist stopped to watch me loading her in the car. "I just want to bury it," I said. This was not the whole truth, but it was too hard to explain that I was taking her home to make a picture, a photogram. She would become a pale coyote shape against a dark background. She would make her own image, a kind of shadow, which would last long after her body was gone. On the way home I worried she might not fit under the enlarger and that my paper wouldn't be wide enough. And it was going to be hard work digging such a big hole. Maybe I would leave her out in the desert for the buzzards—after all, that would be what nature intended.
In 1834, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) saw that silver salts darkened in the sun and invented a photographic process he called "photogenic drawing"—in which images were made without a camera, the subject simply laid on chemically treated paper and exposed to light. Soon afterwards the daughter of a biologist, an Englishwoman called Anna Atkins (1799–1871), began a decade-long obsession with collecting and documenting algae and seaweed, using a similar process known as cyanotype photograms. She self-published this collection—hundreds of beautiful, otherworldly images of white amorphous shapes floating on a deep blue background—in a series of volumes called Photographs of British Algae. Although she labeled the images in neat Victorian handwriting with their classifying genus and species, I expect that, to her, they were more than just records of botanical specimens.
When I first put a eucalyptus leaf on a piece of photographic paper in the dark, in an art school in Australia roughly 130 years later, my fate was sealed, my own desire to document and chronicle the natural world having been set in motion. In my own way, I have devoted myself to that end.
As I laid the coyote on the photographic paper, gently stroked the dust and grit off its glossy coat, and arranged its tail, I thought about Anna arranging her seaweed with the same care and with the same anticipation. These images are "contact prints" of the remains of living things—plants, reptiles, mammals, insects, and birds. Their imprints, ghostly shadows, are burned directly onto paper with light and with love to make a permanent record, a lasting impression.