Steve Silseth combines outdoor photography and taxidermy
Whether hidden in a gillie suit with camera in hand or meticulously painting the eye of a walleye, Steve Silseth strives for perfection. Examination of his visual masterpieces confirms his positive results.
Silseth’s fascination for photography began at an early age. He remembers using a “little Kodak camera” when in the fifth or sixth grade. He would sit, hidden, next to a small pond on his grandfather’s farm and wait for ducks to present themselves within camera range.
A few years later he found himself frequently borrowing his father’s camera which, said Silseth, was quite an improvement over his small Kodak. He learned a lot about color, composition, concealment and patience. All were lessons that he would practice and perfect in years to come. His early experiences with a camera led him to a photography class at Minot High School.
“I never did any assignments we were supposed to do, but did all my own stuff,” said Silseth. “I failed the class because I never did a single assignment.”
Silseth may have failed the class, but his skills with a camera were quite evident. A few years later the class instructor told Silseth’s niece, who was enrolled in the photography class, that Silseth was doing things that his “A” students couldn’t do.
“I still use a lot of what I learned in that class,” said Silseth.
After high school Silseth continued his pursuit of outdoor photography. His experiences from hunting, such as sitting patiently in a blind or watching how geese feed in a grainfield, proved invaluable when using a camera. So too was his association with accomplished outdoor photographer Bill Vinje of Minot. Vinje had numerous photographs published by Ducks Unlimited and other organizations and publications.
“I talked to him a lot,” said Silseth. “I wanted to be in Ducks Unlimited too.”
To get in position to take striking photographs, Silseth would often put up a blind in a carefully chosen location. Motionless and silent, he would wait for the chance to snap the shutter.
“One day it was six below and I sat there for three hours. I got lots of pictures but a lot of people wouldn’t really do that, I guess,” said Silseth.
No, they wouldn’t. But Silseth’s wintertime pictures of wildlife were almost always chosen for publication in the annual North Dakota Outdoors Calendar. His work included a cover shot from a morning when the frost was very heavy. He won the Governor’s Photo Contest one year with a photograph of a male pintail duck running on water just prior to taking flight.
He continues to strive for perfection. Even what seem to be a perfect photograph, says Silseth, can be improved upon.
“When you are doing wildlife photographs you’ll get pictures that are the best you’ve got,” stated Silseth. “But you can always get better.”
An example is photographing birds or animals with “catch light” in their eyes, something easier said than done.
“Every pheasant I’ve ever photographed that was crowing, their eyes get in a goofy position. They are always closed,” said Silseth.
To get the photographs he wanted Silseth began to practice taking pictures of birds in flight. That meant panning the camera with flying birds while keeping them in focus and achieving the desired composition.
“You need some negative and positive space,” explained Silseth. “I like to have some space they are flying into. Today with digital cropping some people make their own space.”
Silseth says he is often asked by people about camera settings and such. His answer is to take advantage of today’s digital cameras that allow for taking virtually an unlimited number of photographs that can be viewed instantly.
“Take some pictures and make setting adjustments until you’ve got what you want,” advises Silseth.
Many photographers prefer to take advantage of warm, morning light. Silseth is not one of them, not usually anyway. Most of his pictures are taken in late afternoon or evening.
“I’m not a morning person at all. Everybody that knows me laughs about that,” said Silseth. “Evening is the best, the most predictable for light, clouds and sun. It takes a lot of luck too to be in the right place at the right time.”
While Silseth uses a tripod to insure steady images when photographing still objects, such as flowers, his method changes when photographing wildlife.
“For certain things you can use a tripod but when it comes to wildlife you don’t normally have the time for it. I’m usually hand-held. There’s a lot of throw-aways but you can usually get one that’s sharp,” explained Silseth.
He says coyotes and fox are probably his most favorite, and challenging, wildlife to photograph. His photograph of a fox in mid-air, pouncing on a field mouse underneath the snow, is a vivid example of his work.
As a taxidermist Silseth has earned a reputation for extraordinary work with fish. It is what he concentrates on, always seeking perfection. His mounts have won many state championship taxidermy competitions in North Dakota, including multiple selections of the coveted “Taxidermist Choice” award. Other notable achievements in taxidermy include state titles in South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.
Not happy with replica fish eyes used by most taxidermists, Silseth determined that he would make his own. It was a long process.
“I messed with fish eyes for 30 years and now make them totally from scratch at my house,” said Silseth. “I’ve been selling some to other taxidermists around the country.”
Silseth carves his own forms for fish mounts too. Most taxidermists order pre-made forms based on the length and girth of a fish. Since Silseth creates his own forms out of carved Styrofoam he can make a variety of positions envisioned by clients. So detailed is his work with fish that he has been called upon to do some very notable mounts.
“I’ve done two North Dakota state record muskies, the smallmouth bass and walleye record, the state record cutthroat trout and the world record sauger from Fort Peck,” said Silseth.
His wonderful work behind the camera lens and at the taxidermy bench is proof that Silseth strives for perfection and yet somehow, as he says, it can always get better. That’s a remarkably high standard.