In the series Zoomorphics, I transform my appearance using body paint and photograph myself as different creatures inspired by the natural world. Animals, plants, fungi, and more can be found in my work. I believe that connecting to nature is fundamental to the human experience, even as spending time outdoors is a diminishing part of modern urban and suburban life.
My creatures occupy a liminal space, both tangible and surreal. The photographs that I make are grounded in the physical world and the solidity of my body. They show how I painted and posed myself at a particular moment. But through fantasy and optical illusion, these images suggest transcendence.
I long to be released from the judgements and misperceptions often projected onto women’s bodies, and from internalized pressure to pose my face into acceptable expressions. By working as model, painter, and photographer, I take artistic control of how my body and self are presented. The creatures that I become are hybrids, both human and non-human. They are beyond gender, and when I inhabit them, I am free.
How I Work
To create the images in my Zoomorphics series, I transform my appearance using body paint and photograph myself as different creatures inspired by the natural world. Often a walk in the woods will give me new ideas, based on the plants, animals, and fungi that I encounter there. My next step is to take or find reference photos. Macro (close-up) photographs that allow me to see fine details are particularly useful, because so much of my work is about evoking the textures found in nature. I also make preparatory sketches, with watercolor or face paint on paper.
Then I set aside a full day to transform myself and make the final photograph, including 4-5 hours of painting and 2 hours of shooting. I paint in front of a mirror, using professional-quality face paints. I take the photographs with a digital camera, a tripod, and an iPhone app that allows me to remote control the camera. I love to shoot outdoors in warm enough weather. But this being Boston, some of my most effective images have been made indoors with relatively simple backdrop and lighting equipment.
Because I only have one afternoon or evening to get the shot before I have to wash the painting off, I often take hundreds of photographs, to ensure I get the right one. It’s an exciting moment when I view the photographs on the computer for the first time and find the one that just works. It should provoke a visceral reaction, moving me to smile, laugh, or stare. And in that moment, I see for the first time exactly what this creature is that I have created, how the painting, photography, and modeling are all working together to bring it to life.
Shelby Meyerhoff is a multidisciplinary artist who works as model, painter, and photographer to create her images. She approaches her art as a feminist and an environmentalist. Meyerhoff lives near the Middlesex Fells, a 3,400-acre nature preserve north of Boston, and draws much of her inspiration from the plants, animals, and fungi found in her local area. Before becoming a fine artist, Meyerhoff worked in nonprofit communications, promoting environmental initiatives.
Meyerhoff has been developing her Zoomorphics series, in which she transforms herself into creatures inspired by the natural world, since 2016. In this time, she has studied at the Griffin Museum of Photography and the New England School of Photography. Her earlier arts education includes coursework at MassArt, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Harvard University.
Her photographs have been shown at the Griffin Museum of Photography, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Mosesian Center for the Arts, and the Nave Gallery. The Zoomorphics series has also been featured in UU World magazine, the national magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association.