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Emma Ressel, a photography graduate student at the University of New Mexico, in her office during an interview on April 28.

UNM graduate inspires new photographers

Artwork is far from cold-blooded

 University of New Mexico graduate student and photographer Emma Ressel spent her childhood in Bar Harbor, Maine searching for reptiles and amphibians.

Her dad, a biology professor, would create his own photos of the animals he taught about. Her childhood was filled with holding lizards and salamanders and staging them for her father’s photography. Ressel’s love for photography started with her trips into “the field” with her father but grew as she learned more about the process itself.

“In high school I took a workshop over the summer … where I learned how to shoot black-and-white film and be in the dark room. I really fell in love with the dark room. I was kind of obsessed after that,” Ressel said.

Ressel’s photography expanded into an interest in natural history museums, dioramas and taxidermy.

“A couple years ago, I started photographing the dioramas and trying to see what happened when I would photograph something that was already still, like posed in motion, but still I'm really interested in this uncanniness of taxidermy and what it tells us about how we relate to the natural world,” Ressel said.

Ressel has been working with the collections managers at the Museum of Southwest Biology to make still-life images of the specimens there.

“A lot of them are in jars or in drawers. And it's been really cool to learn what specimens we have at that museum and talk to biologists and learn more about animal preservation,” Ressel said.

She has created a fictional nature center in her studio office. Her walls are covered in homemade wallpaper of her still-life images and interactive quotes and buttons. She said that her intention is to play with the information presented in museums.

“I'm taking this science information that's presented to the general public and rolling my eyes at it or trying to point out how it falls apart when it reaches us,” Ressel said.

Ressel studied photography at Bard College in upstate New York. She said that her senior thesis at Bard, a photo series of food photography inspired by Dutch still-life paintings, gave her more confidence to pursue a career in professional photography.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, she moved to Philadelphia and started commuting to New York to assist on photo shoots and eventually run her own. However, graduate school was always part of the plan.

In addition to studying photography, Ressel is teaching an introductory to photography class at UNM. Ethan Trujillo, a student majoring in business administration said that Ressel’s class inspired him to continue taking photography classes. He said Ressel’s teaching style helped him gain confidence in his work, specifically with a portrait assignment. 

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“I took a bunch of portraits of trees and she was really open to that idea and sort of personifying this inanimate, living thing. Her openness to that really helped me to build confidence in my ideas … I should be able to do what I like, even if it sounds odd and kind of weird,” Trujillo said.

Joel Miranda, a computer science major in the introduction to photography class, said that Ressel’s passion for her work shines through in her teaching.

“She's super passionate about photography, and that really rubs off on all the students and you can feel the energy. When she's teaching something, especially if it comes to her specific area, she gets super excited and that's infectious,” Miranda said.

Ressel’s move from the East Coast to Albuquerque presented her with more opportunities to connect and learn about the environments she is depicting. Ressel said that UNM’s art and ecology program is unique in the way it applies environmental issues to art.

“People don't think it's weird to want to take photos of animals. There's a lot of people who care about photography and I haven't felt like I've had to convince anybody to care about what I care about,” Ressel said.

Part of Ressel's photography series on compost is being published in this year's issue of Conceptions Southwest. She said that she started the series when she moved to Albuquerque and has begun printing them.

“I've been printing those images really large because I want the compost to feel really immersive and kind of like these tapestries,” Ressel said.

Ressel is still grappling with the idea of calling herself an artist — a title she thinks a lot of people struggle taking on — but she attributes some of her success to having the confidence to keep pursuing photography.

Addison Key is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @addisonkey11 


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