Wild things are all around us—we just need to stop and look. This week on Getty Voices, photographer Tahnee Cracchiola reveals her encounters with the creatures of the Getty and how they took her craft to a new level. See her stunning wildlife portraits throughout the week on Twitter and Facebook.

Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II / Jack Zajac

Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II, 1963, Jack Zajac. Bronze, 44 3/4 x 92 x 22 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of Fran and Ray Stark, 2005.123. Artwork © Jack Zajac. Photo: Tahnee Cracchiola

“Keep your love of nature, for that is the true way to understand art more and more.” —Vincent Van Gogh

“Lucky shot” is actually a real thing that happens while shooting outdoors. You can plan your full day, have a shot list, track the sun, the moon, and the stars…but always be open to the unexpected, because that’s the key to capturing that shot.

My name is Tahnee Cracchiola and I’m a photographer at the Getty Villa. I was originally hired in June 2006 to photograph 28 selected sculptures that were gifted to the Getty Museum by Fran and Ray Stark. Nine locations throughout the grounds of the Getty Center were meticulously designed to house these sculptures.

Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II / Zajac

As an architecture and outdoor sculpture photographer, my primary focus was conveying the journey of each sculpture from conservation to final installation. I charted the sun and the moon for the best lighting conditions for each sculpture and its location at sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset (moonset can be really cool during a full moon) until I was able to capture the best lighting for each sculpture’s final in situ beauty shot for publication. It was truly a labor of love.

It became part of my routine to visit several sculptures a day to photograph them in their best light and time of year, as well as weather conditions. On one particular summer morning, when the heat was already radiating off the travertine sanctuary of the Getty Center, I heard a strange sound coming from Jack Zajac’s sculpture Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II. It was like a scuffling sound…when all of a sudden out popped this little lizard! His entrance into my frame startled me, and at the same time his presence was surprising, because I had yet to see any kind of wildlife on the Getty grounds—including birds.

Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II / Zajac

Artwork © Jack Zajac

My first instinct was to shoo him away because he was invading my shot, right? He was ruining my art!

A little background on this thought. As architecture photographers, we have a core understanding that the scene be flawless and pristine. It’s regular practice to pick up trash and move trashcans out of the frame. We use chairs and umbrellas as design elements and make very serious decisions on whether they should be open or closed. This attention to detail is even more exaggerated when shooting for a museum. Museum photographers often work closely with conservators and the facilities crew to make sure the outdoor art and surroundings have been cleaned and perfectly manicured. So here I was, face-to-face with this little intruder who wasn’t afraid of me and was not going to be intimidated out of his home. In fact, the more I protested his presence, the more he pranced around and posed for me. And so our relationship began.

Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II / Zajac

Artwork © Jack Zajac

Every morning during my 10-minute break, I would stop by Zajac’s sculpture to visit with my Sculpture Buddy. As soon as he saw me he would shuffle to the edge of the travertine of the sculpture’s base and hang out soaking in the sun across from me. I would drink my morning coffee and he would just stand there blinking at me. It was refreshing and humorous to spend a little time photographing a lizard. He brought levity to my day and helped me feel grounded to the process of photographing outdoor art. I realized during our moments together that our connection was a deeper lesson for me regarding my profession and the scope of my work at the Getty: I needed to reevaluate my ties to this traditional view of photographing architecture and outdoor sculpture. If you’re going to install works of art outdoors, be prepared that the wild of the great outdoors just might make a cozy home out of it.

Lizard with Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II / Zajac

So I learned that summer from my Sculpture Buddy that it wasn’t just about evaluating the light and time of day and year to take the best photograph of an object. It is much more than that, and even extends beyond the lizard living in the Zajac. It touches how we view shooting outdoors as a whole. The true beauty of outdoor sculpture, landscape, and architecture is not only how the art reflects the colors and sites surrounding it, but also how wildlife utilizes the art resources for shelter, food, and entertainment. Each object is a slave to its environment. And then it finally hit me: the intruder was not the lizard…it was me.

I took this concept seriously and brought it with me to the Getty Villa, where I was assigned the following year to photograph the plant life and surrounding gardens for the book Gardens and Plants of the Getty Villa. I had no idea that what awaited me were more adventures as other wildlife at the Getty crossed my frame unexpectedly. This connection has extended from that first encounter with the lizard to hummingbirds, deer, butterflies, and other wildlife living at the Getty Villa.

The most fascinating realization for me was that they all were as interested in me as I was in them. They even seemed to pose for me—allowing me this exquisite moment to share in their life of playfulness, curiosity, and pure nature. And in turn I was given the opportunity to celebrate them with my photographs.

I invite you to come join me every day this week on Twitter and Facebook to view more images and stories of my continued adventures photographing wildlife at the Getty Museum.

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