Nature photographer Nancy Rose began making waves on photo sharing sites with her unique and playful photos featuring curious wild squirrels. Her adorable images went viral, and fans began asking for more, prompting Rose to release her first children's book, The Secret Life of Squirrels. We asked Rose a few questions about her passion for photography, her creative process and, of course, Mr. Peanuts.
How did you first become interested in photography?
I bought my first film camera when I was in high school and loved taking pictures, but film was very expensive so I did not take as many photos as I wanted to. In 2007 my son signed me up for a photography class using a digital camera, and my interest was rekindled. I could finally afford to take lots and lots of photos, and this helped me learn to improve.
Where did the idea for this photo series come from?
I was putting birdseed and nuts out in my backyard and taking lots of photos of the birds and squirrels. One day a squirrel sat on top of a pumpkin, holding onto the pumpkin stem, and he reminded me of a captain steering his ship, so I thought how cool it would be to find a little boat for him to pose on. I never did find a boat, but, at the suggestion of a friend, I made a little mailbox out of cardstock and decorated it for Valentine's Day, and then added some tiny envelopes. To get the squirrel to "pose" for me, I hid peanuts inside the mailbox. He came along searching for the nuts, and I got some shots of him "mailing the letters." The photo was a big hit on Flickr, where I share my photos, so I was inspired to try more photos with some other props. I decided to make a calendar for my family and friends and created photos for each month of the year using props like Easter eggs, a Christmas tree, a Halloween pumpkin, etc.
Squirrels are so curious and cute, and they can stand in poses almost human-like. Blue Jays also come to take the peanuts from my sets, but they don't pose the same way.
What is your process for making the miniatures?
I have always made crafts so I have lots of supplies in my craft room. Sometimes an idea just pops in my head and I am lucky I can find the things I need. The washer and dryer were made of empty milk cartons cut and folded into shape and covered with paper. The barbecue was made of tiny foil loaf pans and popsicle sticks. Most times I don't really have a full idea of what I am making—it just develops as I go along. Lots of trial and error. I might take some photos and then decide to add more details and change the props a bit. Every setting has to function as a "still life" on its own before the squirrel enters the scene, and I need to think about how the squirrel will likely behave, like standing to look into the washer or peeking into the dryer.
What do you love most about photography?
Photography is like meditation to me. I can get so immersed in what I am doing that I lose track of time. I always wanted to paint and draw but was not great at it, so photography allows me to express myself creatively. It is also a terrific exercise for the mind since there is always so much more to learn. My husband and I love to travel, and photography allows us to have memories of all our trips.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen Mr. Peanuts do with your props?
I found a small ceramic bathtub which was the perfect size for him. I made a tiny yellow rubber ducky out of cornstarch play dough and sat it on the side of the bathtub. To keep it in place, I inserted a toothpick into the ducky and down into a tiny "towel" which was draped over the edge of the tub. The squirrel came along and bit into the duck and carried it off, with the towel trailing along behind. He carried it up a huge pine tree and just when I thought it was gone forever, along came a Blue Jay and knocked it down to the ground where I was able to find it, and set it all up again.
Is there a particular scene you can’t wait to build and photograph next?
A fan of my squirrels mailed me a small grocery cart, just the perfect size, and I want to build a set and have him shopping for groceries.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to young readers?
I think everyone should find a hobby or activity which gives you pleasure and helps you relax. It can be reading books, doing arts and crafts, playing a musical instrument, learning to cook or playing sports. We all need to find something that makes us happy, teaches us something new and keeps us from getting bored. Sometimes it takes a long time to learn how to be good at something so we should not give up too easily. Try lots of different things until you find the things you love and that you want to learn more about.
Will any other animals get their close-up?
As soon as I set up my little props and put peanuts out, I get a few Blue Jays and sometimes chickadees and crows who like to grab the nuts before the squirrel can get there. They often chase each other away, so it can be pretty funny watching them, but then I have to keep adding more peanuts. At first I was upset because peanuts were so expensive and then I realized it was a small price to pay for all the laughter and joy they bring. A chipmunk who lives across the street also comes over now and then, but he is much more timid than the squirrels.
Photos used with permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.