Norse mythology foretells that the fierce wolf deity, Fenrir will someday slay Odin in the events of Ragnarok. On the Friday night I met with photographer, Emma Buntrock-Muller, her German Shepherd Fenrir regularly inserts himself in the conversation to slay her with snuggles and licks to her face.
Buntrock-Muller has an energy that drives her numerous projects across photography, puppet making, and dog training, as well as a humor that’s even more pervasive throughout our time together than Fenrir’s cuddling. From puppets to mental health, light and dark, life, death, and mental health, we covered much in our conversation together:
OI: Tell me about your dogs, you have three German Shepherds. Do you find they help with establishing and maintaining a routine?
EBM: Sometimes I don’t know how I keep myself propped up, but I do! You’re very spot on, I’m a workaholic. For me to excuse myself from work I have to have a real purpose or something I have to do. That’s the reason I got Wolfgang, the first dog I had. He’s four years old. I just got the two others, Kinga and Fenrir, very recently. Kinga I’ve had for about a year, and Fenrir almost a year. They need me, so it’s not like it’s an excuse. They’re part of my duty and responsibility. I love them, they’re my children- but not in a weird way where I dress them in clothing or anything like that [laughter].
It sounds weird because it’s what most people say when they have their first child, but I didn’t really know what love was until I had Wolfgang. I have wonderful people in my life- friends, family, lovers if you will- but I feel like I didn’t really understand what love was until Wolfgang. He’s so smart and intuitive and I have such a connection with him, and now have such a connection with all dogs, but German Shepherds in particular.
OI: Your comic book and stamp collections are an interesting reflection of the sense of purpose and focus you’re describing there.
EBM: I actually don’t have my own stamp collection. My job is that I am a rare stamp dealer. I used to be a nursing assistant before that. I worked for the Little Sisters of the Poor and in the morning I used to dress nuns in their full habits. There’s a lot of little pieces of clothing under there. I never would’ve guessed that would be a job for me, but I loved it. They were feisty and I liked them.
I sell rare stamps. I work for a company owned by Swedish men who are boyhood friends and for the main owner who lives in London. This is like his pet project, it’s his little business for fun for him. I’m the Corporate Secretary, so I don’t own the company but I’m one of the three board members. The other two board members are the owners. Stamp collecting is a very expensive hobby, one of the most expensive hobbies you can have. The most a stamp has ever sold for- which I was there for- was for $9.2 Million.
OI: But the comic books are your personal collection?
EBM: Yes and no, I read comic books since I was a kid, but I would never call myself a collector. These are all my father’s. I inherited them when he passed away a few years ago. I sold some, but I’m sentimental so I’ve kept most of them also because I do enjoy comic books. So the comic book that he enjoyed and would talk about and reference the most, and has the most of is “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen.” Which sounds super boring but if you read it, weird things happen to that kid.
The only ones I consider boring are the older Lois Lane ones. All the older Lois Lane comics are about her trying to trick Superman into marrying her, so it’s super boring. Except for one where Superman was engaged to a mermaid briefly. I know I go all over the place, so excuse me. That’s how my brain works.
OI: No need to apologize, it’s wonderful.
EBM: When it comes to things I create, the photography is what most people go to. It’s common for a lot of people that like creating things to have the end goal but then we get distracted so easily. I’m not sure if you’re one of those folks as well.
OI: Oh, absolutely.
EBM: The issue is I love making things, and there’s a lot of things I want to do. I want to get into welding at some point, but that’s way out in the future only because I’m trying to really advance my skills in what I’m working on now. So the way I’m trying to do it instead of being- you know that thing about being mediocre at many things instead of being really good at one?
OI: A Jack of all trades, master of none.
EBM: It’s that I’m eventually going to incorporate it all into the photography. So, eventually it all will transfer because that’s the easiest way for me to create a narrative. The puppets eventually will be part of the photography.
OI: How is the puppet making coming along?
EBM: I actually have an unfinished puppet hand right here. I have a lot of half done puppets. It looks kind of macabre in a funny way because they’re puppets. I’m making these as a gift as a fan to artists that I like.
My first time trying it, I wanted to do this eye mechanism for one. There’s a picture of it on Instagram: it’s this big green- it’s supposed to be Cecil from Cecil and Beanie. There was a lot of: oh that’s no gonna work, oh no that’s not gonna work. I had to redo a lot, so I learned from that experience when it comes to building something I have no experience with at all, I should start with focusing on one.
I didn’t know how to use a sewing machine and I’m one of those people that say ‘oh, I’ve never used a sewing machine before, I should make skin for this puppet that has this complicated foam shape!”
OI: Dive in at the deep end.
EBM: I get excited and that’s part of the benefit of having a separate job. Because it’s not my livelihood- not the puppets, or the photography. Again, I’m one of those people that’s disorganized so having an end goal like: oh, the show is on this date, so I have to have the puppets ready at this time. That really is the driving goal. I haven’t stopped making puppets, I just really get lost in work a lot.
Seven days a week, and it comes home with me. We have a lot of stock so there’s always more I can be doing, but I feel like it’s important to have more in my life than just work, even if I enjoy my job. So that’s why I help out with the dog training, and I have my three German Shepherds and I train with them a lot.
OI: You seem very deadline driven. Are there other ways to keep yourself focused and motivated?
EBM: No, not really [laughter]. I know how I am and I really prepare myself. Another thing I’ve done as a deadline, I’m going to the ventriloquist convention, VentHaven in July. I’m not a performer-
OI: Darn it. I was just about to ask.
EBM: No, I’m not a performer, but to go you have to participate and you can’t go without a ventriloquist dummy. Me being me, I have to make my own. I’m a big fan of a few things, and I like paying tribute to that. Now, this is not a very official thing, I’m just going to this convention and I’m gonna have fun and learn things and meet interesting people. That’s the important part for me: meeting new people, different people. I feel like I should go with an original character. I’m working on it, and I have that deadline. I have a while, but it’s still a deadline.
When you say, ‘do I have any other ways to organize myself?’ When it comes to my life separate from work, my artistic life, not really. I should, maybe I’ll get better at it. Another thing I’ve done: any photo of mine where you see a nude, I’ve paid them as a model. I schedule with a model, I know that I’m going to pay her a certain amount- I haven’t found a lot of male models I’ve wanted to shoot with.
So that’s another thing, Zoe West who’s a traveling model who’s in a lot of my photos, she has a great energy. People ask me how I pick the models I work with, and they were girls I kind of knew before. Whether I met them at a gallery or back when I did modeling, you just kind of gel well together. That’s what’s really important to me, a nice comforting gel.
OI: Zoe West has a very deep gaze. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I identify with you on your struggles with depression, which leads me to the question from Nigel Walsh: “I’d like to know what the hardest thing anyone’s ever had to come back from is?”
EBM: Coming back from the dead? Everything else is just coming up daisies after that [Laughter]. I don’t quite mean it that way, and it sounds so corny, but I’m a corny person. I’m very silly.
OI: You and me both.
EBM: I can be a very private person in a lot of ways. I can be very friendly and social, but that’s something that you probably understand yourself, having your own experiences. When I see other people post about whatever experiences they’ve had, or mentioning it, you feel less alone. It validates not the negative things you did or choices you made of not taking care of yourself- whatever they were- but that other people have this too.
Even though you know that other people deal with this, you read about it. When it’s somebody you meet face to face who’ll talk about their mental health struggles, I admire their bravery with that. It’s also Mental health Awareness Month.
I’m not going to go into detail of how I did it, but let’s just say I never had an issue with drugs because I had my own brain issues without bringing something else into the mix. I’m diagnosed with PTSD.
OI: It’s an evolution from there to where you are today.
EBM: Trust me, it took a long time. It’s still a maintenance thing. I’m in the best mental health of my life for years now and sometimes you feel that depression. I don’t go into full mania anymore, it’s more like a hypo-mania and I realize in the middle of it, ‘oh, little extra energy, but it feels so good.’ But it’s not anything destructive anymore.
You get bummed that there’s still something even after all the emotional work that I’ve done? I remind myself: ‘okay, you had a bad day today, let’s try to have a better day tomorrow and just do the best I can.’ Sometimes the best you can do in a day is accomplish a lot of work, accomplish a lot of projects, help other people, do whatever goals you have, and some days getting out of bed and maybe taking a shower is the most you can do that day. That’s still a triumph in itself.
Eleven years ago I was legally dead for three minutes. That’s its own story. I couldn’t write a book about it like some people have, at least not that part of it. I thought it was a dream and then in my mind I woke up in the hospital and they were like, ‘you were dead!’ Of course that’s not the way the doctor put it, he was more professional than, ‘dude, you were dead!’
I feel a sense that everything is just a bonus now. It was different for me because I didn’t have a sense of ennui when I made the decision that ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I felt like I was suffocating. It was like being in an iron maiden and there’s nothing but pain for every moment and I felt like I could hardly breathe, and no matter what I do this uncomfortable feeling like your skeleton’s going to jump out of your skin is just not going to go away. I felt like there was no way out. It felt like mercy killing. That’s how I felt beforehand, and when I came back I thought, ‘I guess I’m gonna give this another shot.’
It took a lot of work. A lot of work. It was making the decision that instead of ignoring the fact that I have a certain brain chemistry I decided to do what I could to get better. That’s its own thing.
OI: A reason to get out of bed, something to accomplish, even if it’s self-created- do you think having those projects and targets help?
EBM: I wish it did. It usually don’t realize it at first, whether it’s depression or whether it’s hypomania or what not, but it just happens. Especially since I have PTSD, it’s not like it is in the movies for me anyway and for a lot of other people I’ve met.
I think I’m very sensitive to change that’s out of my control. That’s the thing I can pinpoint, even if it’s small change or good change. It doesn’t have to be negative- things that are not completely in my control. I’m not a control freak, that makes me sound like a control freak. Because of certain things I dealt with as a child, when I feel like I’m powerless against change even when it’s good change, that’s probably a big trigger for it, but that’s not something I notice all the time because the change doesn’t always have to be a big thing or something I even realize is bothering me.
I think that it is tied to some external things, but a lot of it is internal as well. Unfortunately when I’m not feeling well, if I have a deadline it just makes me more stressed. I say, ‘that’s just another thing I’m going to disappoint everybody with.’ It’s different, but I liked hearing your story as well, because it is so universal. That’s another part of the things I create that all these feelings are so universal but we experience in such an individual way.
OI: We all find our own way to either remain steady, or keep moving forward and evolving. Your photography is a very controlled artistic expression, very precise, very intentional. You go in with a clear plan of what you’re trying to create and manifest.
EBM: Yes. That says to me you’re very perceptive but also that I’m doing it right I guess. There’s a photo I have and it’s one of my least favorites. It doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I wouldn’t put it up if I didn’t like it at all, but I think it’s important to be honest about my work if it’s not my favorite or didn’t come out like I wanted it to, to learn something from it. That gives more gravity to the work that does really mean something to me.
I like when people get it, but I want people to read into their own narrative when they see it, not necessarily my narrative. [Who’s Your Daddy, Snake Girl?] That is purely me practicing i-gradient maps in photoshop. I have an interest in old dime museums, so it just fit. I get less comments on that, not because I specifically said ‘I don’t like that photo.’ I think I do get a lot more response from folks when I really have put in the work. There’s two photos I recently finished that I really feel like I’ve evolved to the next level.
When I said the next level I don’t mean ‘I’m better!’ [thumbs up] I mean I’m starting to evoke more emotions in photos, and express it in a better way.
OI: Regarding the emotion from those more recent photos from the Miami shoot, how much of the emotionality is something you’re trying to communicate and how much is you challenging the viewer to have a response?
EBM: I never feel like I want to challenge someone, I feel like a piece of art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. I like it when it does speak to somebody. So when I was going to Miami for a stamps convention, I knew I wanted to do some photography too. I had been to that hotel, it’s a yearly thing I do. I did an actual booth exhibit of my work the year before where I sold my prints and all the money I got from my prints I donated to the American Association for Suicide Prevention.
A lot of people came up to me and shared very personal stories about people that were in their lives who had committed suicide, things they had dealt with. That was an amazing experience because I felt out of place thinking ‘are people really going to look at my stuff?’ but people came and shared their amazing stories with me.
I knew the narrative I wanted. I had the feeling. I knew exactly the type of look I wanted and the different ways it could be interpreted. The photo, “Rooms for the Architect,” where I’m sitting on a table and there’s a man- he’s one of the owners of the [stamp] company, Tor. That one, I originally had thought of it where I would be sitting on maybe the top of the bed with the covers up to a certain degree, white sheets- because you can usually expect a white sheet from a hotel- and Tor would be sitting fully clothed at the edge of the bed. But then there was this great porch in my room! So then everything else came afterwards.
I think when I first started doing photography, there’s this place in Manchester (NH) called the Studio of Photographic Arts. They used to do French Salon where you bring three pieces and the whole room talks about it in a very friendly environment. The first time I’d shown any of my photos, the photo that meant the most to me at that time is actually still one of my favorite photos I’ve ever done which I took on a cold December day.
Most people don’t even know it’s me in it. It’s a broken down looking house and there’s a person in a hospital gown standing with their back to you. For that one I curled my back so much that you couldn’t see my head. The way they do the French Salon, they don’t say who’s whose photo. So everyone was saying, ‘oh they must have edited it,’ and the best editor’s there, his name is Dastardly Dave. Excellent photos, and if you like photos of lovely ladies he’s an excellent photographer for you. I say you as a general thing since who doesn’t like photos of lovely ladies?
When I first went in and I was going to show that photo, I saw all the things I didn’t like about it. There’s a lot of tree branches coming down, and the house has a lot of angles, and I was really bothered by how the crop was. It really stuck with me, thinking it was really going to ruin the whole picture and that no one was going to get it, but a lot of people did. A lot of people thought of the elderly that aren’t cared for and my thought was mental health in particular.
At the salon afterwards I was with Dastardly Dave, I was telling him there’s a lot I need to learn. Like I haven’t really worked with strobes before and all that stuff. He said something that really stuck with me: ‘you definitely have the narrative there. Everything else will come after. You have the most important thing some people never have it.’
“Rooms for the Architect” where I’m on the table and Tor is at the door, I thought of a lot of things that I wanted other people to read it as. For me, it could be different parts of my life. It’s never usually the present part in my life but it’s something other people would experience. That’s why I say in my about me on the website: it’s not reflective of my life now. Sometimes when I post a photo, friends of mine will be like, ‘are you okay?’ I’m like, ‘yes! I’m fine! It’s just a photograph!’
OI: Duality plays a thematic role in a lot of your photos. Inner and outer; darkness and light; the macabre versus the elegant and pristine-
EBM: You’re right in that sense. I think what I’m trying to go towards now is that duality isn’t always as strict as good and evil, our urges that we’re not supposed to have and are refraining against them. I want to get more into that gray area so that’s what I try to do especially with the Miami photos. I’m trying to move towards that, so this is my example of the gray area: the version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) that has Ingrid Bergman in it.
Dr. Jekyll wants to separate the good and the evil with science and he takes this elixir and he turns into Mr. Hyde, and it’s in his control for a while. He remembers what he does as Mr. Hyde and it gets incrementally worse. For a period of time, whether it’s just for the sake of science or taking this elixir gives him the power to do things he could never do as a proper English gentleman.
There is that gray area where Jekyll can make the decision to stop taking the elixir. I like that gray area that part of Jekyll: he’s a good man, a good doctor, but none of us are perfect. All of us have our gray areas. We’re all people, we’re all the same and yet we are individual at the same time.
I’m trying to move more into ambiguous areas. “Room for the Architects,” what I thought of first is are these two people who just met and had some kind of sexual encounter, or are they about to, or decided not to? Or are these two people that have known each other for a long time, are they a couple? Are they having an affair?
I didn’t notice until somebody else mentioned it- which is funny because it’s so obvious: there’s a chair on the floor and there’s the movement of the curtain, and neither of us look happy. That we had some kind of fight, that maybe kind of applies possible abuse, and maybe regret at that which I didn’t even think of when I made that photo and edited it.
I got a few messages from people about that, positive and conversational. I love that someone can look at my photo and think that because I had all these thoughts about how these two relate to each other, I had all these thoughts and emotions I wanted to invoke and somebody noticed something I didn’t even think of that now looks so obvious to me. How cool is that?
EBM: No! I’m a very simple girl, I just want to be happy. I think a lot of people these days want a certain amount of acclaim. Don’t get me wrong, I really like when people like my work and it speaks to them, but at the same time my fantasies aren’t having a big gallery where people love my photos. It’s someone finding one of my prints in Goodwill and whether it’s a thirteen year old girl, or a sixty year old man, they have this picture and it means something to them. Whether it’s ‘look at that ass,’ not that it’s always my ass, because there are other girls too! Or it’s ‘I feel this,” or even I think of a post-apocalyptic world, like Mad Max Fury Road and someone in the rubble comes across my photograph and it means something to them.
That sounds so silly, because galleries are so formal, I’ve done that a little bit so it makes me a little nervous. I’ll get used to it, but I think more of little fantasies like that. Maybe this week I’ll put one of my prints in the local Goodwill and put a two dollar sticker on it and see if someone picks it up. That’s how I think of my goals and my photography even if I have a small audience or an audience I never know about, it’s an audience that really connects with what I’m trying to invoke or what they find in something that I make.
OI: Do you feel like you have a certain invincibility since you don’t need your art to make you a living in terms of pursuing what feels true rather than what will sell?
EBM: I never feel invincible, but yes. The downside is because I’m such a person that needs to have a schedule and purpose that means I don’t get to my photography near as much as I would like to. But definitely, and it lets me play around with things and find certain different styles of how I want to say something, and I don’t have to worry about, ‘this has to be something somebody’s going to buy and put on their wall.’
When I did my gallery show in Miami, I’d never sold prints before. This was two years ago, I don’t really make art that people are gonna put on their wall, especially not for that particular audience, but I sold way more than I thought because I thought I was gonna sell zero. Not having that worry, ‘are people going to like this?’
I don’t want to say I have a following, I don’t like thinking about it that way, but I do have people who I consistently hear from mostly on Instagram, which I love. Anyone who wants to have a conversation about something I did, I love to do it. I don’t worry about disappointing someone that loved the last three photos I did, and then I do a photo like the fun one for my birthday. Even though there’s a lot of little secret details about myself in there, even though it looks goofy because I’m in a pink lab coat and I have a purple wig on, and there’s Valentine’s hearts dripping down the wall, which is very different than the two Miami photos I did and even “And Your Little Dog Too!”
It does have its freedom. Planning on my retirement, which some of my friends make fun of me for because it’s such an old lady thing to do, is: get a Winnebago, get my dogs, and we’re gonna go across country, meet people, and take photos. It won’t be ‘I need this as a livelihood,’ but ‘this is something I need to do.’ I need to express myself somehow.
OI: I really like the birthday photo, it felt like an interesting satire of your own style as a birthday gift to yourself.
EBM: You’re so good! That was my first photo shoot in a studio about four years ago. They were friends of mine, Monte and Tor. They have photography experience and we had a lot of fun. There’s some more disturbing photos that I took for fun just of those two, because in life we all kind of feel like outsiders, especially growing up, and then you find people that you just click with. Monte and Tor have a dark, goofy, ridiculous sense of humor. Monte’s from North Dakota, Tor’s from Sweden. The most important thing for me with my work, even the pieces that are very serious looking is my sense of humor and in life. Without my sense of humor I wouldn’t be here.
OI: That’s true of a lot of us.
EBM: Probably everybody.
OI: Last question: what should I ask my next interviewee?
EBM: If you were to die tomorrow, what would you create today and what message would you want to leave to the world with what you create? How would you do that? To make it easier: the idea is you have 24 hours, but you don’t have limits to materials, just the time.
Emma Buntrock-Muller is a photographer based in Concord, NH. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter (@emmaoftheimpact) for updates on her photography and many other projects, and check out her site, emmaoftheimpactphotography.com for more of her work.