Shooting the kill 

In the crosshairs with Missoula photographer Sam Manno

There’s a moment in talking with Sam Manno when his facial expressions mimic the same curiously disparate range as those in his upcoming exhibit. Manno’s From the 7th of May features two teenage boys killing time in some nondescript backwoods with a BB gun, shooting at birds for fun. There’s a giddiness to their chase, captured in Manno’s voyeuristic black-and-white images, and a pride conveyed when the boys finally hit their target. But once the adrenaline wears off, the photographs show a sense of remorse or confusion over what the teenagers have just accomplished. In one image a boy holds up his kill honorably, in another he looks at the dead bird with sheepish shame.

Manno’s emotional trajectory begins when he says, “I’m trying to avoid being typecast as the guy who shoots dead animals.”

It’s a ridiculous hope, and I think he knows it, saying it with a hint of sarcasm and a wry smile. Manno knows full well that it’s a difficult designation to evade, considering From the 7th of May’s adolescent bird hunt is coupled with another collection of detailed portraits shot behind Baker Commodities, the Missoula rendering plant that closed this past spring. When Manno says he’s trying to avoid being typecast, he actually looks as proud of his niche as the boy in the photograph.

But after a beat, and once he realizes that pride may be mistaken or misinterpreted, his expression changes to one near defensiveness. He adds seriously, “I guess I don’t want to be typecast the way Diane Arbus was typecast for photographing midgets, dwarves and outsiders. That’s just the way her work was edited. I think there’s more to the work…It’s about making a beautiful photograph.”

The Missoula photographer seems to be less concerned with classification—he later admits dead animals are sort of an obsession, a muse—as with justifying the focus of his work. His content is dark, sinister and sometimes controversial, but the images themselves are elegant and distinguished. They’re not so much gross as engrossing, and whether it’s the expressions of the teenage boys or the textures and lines of the animal body parts at Baker Commodities, Manno’s lens has a habit of exposing something rarely caught on film.

“It’s what’s ignored, what people would prefer not to acknowledge,” Manno says. “What’s kept the images alive for me is the dichotomy in we’re out killing things but we’re almost afraid of what we’re doing. We don’t care to actually look at it. We’ll shoot the bird, but we’re afraid to then pick it up and look at it.”

Manno’s been looking at “it” almost since the time he first picked up a camera. “Dead animals have always crept into my work,” he says, remembering that as a teenager he once photographed the remains of a dead rabbit, and then photographed it again after a cat found and mutilated the carcass.

Manno, now 46, attended the University of Illinois-Chicago, majoring in photography and ceramics. It was during his time in school that he stumbled upon his younger brother and a friend in the woods near his parents’ suburban home playing with a BB gun. Manno’s documentation of that afternoon became part of a display at his college, but he says strong opposition led to the photographs being taken down after just one week. Viewers thought Manno had posed the images or staged the shoot (he says he didn’t); at the very least they held him accountable for not stopping his younger brother.

“I didn’t think he should be doing it—and I think I told him that—but I didn’t think it was my position to have to stop him either,” Manno says. “He had a gun.”

Manno moved to Missoula in 1985 to pursue a graduate degree in ceramics, but continued to pursue photography on the side. Upon his arrival he discovered Baker Commodities behind the Wal-Mart on Reserve Street, and he’s been shooting there ever since. The display of those images in the back room of Gallery Saintonge—“There’s no chance for the viewer to move away in there”—is selected from two decades of visits to the site.

“In 20 years I was stopped once by someone, an employee,” says Manno, who usually just walked up and photographed the piles of flesh awaiting processing. “He asked me what I was doing and I told him. He took my name, address, phone number and said he was going to talk to a manager. I never heard a thing, and that was almost 10 years ago.”

The rendering plant images are not as jarring as the content may imply. There’s no periphery to the shots, only pristine close-ups of a barren rib cage, the head of a white horse that looks serene save for some dirt on the nose and the knowledge of where it’s resting, and a dozen other shots of unidentifiable animal parts, encouraging viewers to lean closer rather than step away. He’s not sure how the images will be perceived.

“Part of me thinks this will be no big deal to a Montana audience,” he says, adding that the exhibit was intentionally timed to coincide with hunting season.

To help offset any negative reaction, and that dreaded typecasting, Manno has arranged to mount a third exhibit, up concurrently next door at Butterfly Herbs. The 16 prints in the coffee shop cover a broad spectrum of portraits and landscapes in the same black-and-white style. But the intended antidote isn’t entirely pure. Included in the mix is Manno’s early photograph of a mutilated rabbit.

“I couldn’t help it,” he says. “I remember there was a review when the [hunting] show was up in Chicago and somebody referred to me as the most sensual dead animal photographer they’d seen…I’m still not sure how to take it to this date.”

Maybe Manno should consider taking it as a compliment. As his photos show, he is what he is, even 20 years later.

Sam Manno’s From the 7th of May is on display at Gallery Saintonge through Tuesday, Oct. 31, with a First Friday opening reception Oct. 6, from 5 to 8 PM. The Butterfly Herbs show runs concurrently.

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