Christie Pierce sets the scene with care.
She places a garland of gold and red fall leaves behind a flat, plate-sized stone, perched on a retaining wall on her back patio. She arranges small orange boxes, painted with jack-o-lantern faces. She removes a few sunflower seeds from a small container, breaks them in half with a thumbnail and hides them strategically around the boxes.
She lifts her point-and-shoot digital camera into position.
And she waits.
The stars of this show are capricious and unpredictable. Maybe they’ll show up. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll do what Pierce wants. Maybe they won’t.
“What I’m hoping is that he’s going to pick up this block, and have it look like he’s doing something with the block,” Pierce says. “That’s my aim, but we’ll see.”
It’s the only attitude to take when you’re working with chipmunks. For about a year, Pierce has been creating small-scale scenes, luring her backyard chipmunks into them and taking photographs that are odd and fascinating – in addition to exceedingly cute. In Pierce’s scenarios, a chipmunk may peer down on a doll in a crib, duck its head under the raised hood of a green model Monte Carlo, rub snouts with a T-rex, sit by a campfire with a cowboy, or hold a Thanksgiving turkey drumstick.
Pierce says she uses no digital manipulation beyond adjusting for contrast.
“I can’t have food showing, or poop or pee,” Pierce says. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”
Pierce is hoping to turn her photographs into a business that helps nonprofit groups. She has put together a calendar, FriendChips 2014, which she hopes to sell to nonprofits – which could sell the calendars for $15 and keep $8.50 each in profits. She’s also in the running to be a contestant on the reality TV show “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs pitch ideas to investors; she’d love to see the business grow but isn’t someone who wants to handle sales and distribution.
Pierce and her husband, Paul, both of whom are 57, live on 10 acres south of Spokane. She’s a retired nurse; he’s a retired electrical engineer. Chipmunks – along with all kinds of other wildlife – are abundant at their place, and they’d become regular visitors to the Pierces’ patio over the years.
Last summer, the Pierces had a miniature playing card they’d been given as a drink ticket at a casino night, and they decided it would be funny to try to get one of “their” chipmunks – aka Mr. Stubbs – to hold the card for a picture.
“Then it just kind of morphed,” Christie Pierce said. “I started raising the bar with my sets.”
They produced a calendar for friends. But everyone who saw it wanted one, she said, and she wound up making and selling 60 of them. That led to the idea to try and expand the project.
A crucial breakthrough came when she was able to get a chipmunk to lift something – a checkers piece. That element adds the possibility that the chipmunks may appear to be actually doing something human. One of the vivid instances of this is one of Pierce’s latest efforts; Paul helped her build a small scene on a cutting board, with a little shack, some tools and sawhorses, and a half-sawn board with a tiny saw in it. Pierce knew she could bait a chipmunk into the scene – but getting one to take hold and appear to be doing the actual sawing was another matter.
It’s half a matter of smart baiting and half luck, Pierce said – and she got lucky. The resulting photograph shows a chipmunk apparently sawing a board.
Out on her back patio this week, Pierce worked on the October scene with the garland of leaves and the jack-o-lantern boxes. She set the scene, raised her camera and waited.
“It’s kind of like fishing,” she said. “You sit and fish and wait for that bobber to move.”
Sometimes she waits a few minutes. Sometimes she waits an hour. But she always stands there with her point-and-shoot, a foot or two away – no tripod, no big zoom lens. Soon enough, a little chipmunk pops up on the retaining wall near the scene.
“Oh, here’s Wally,” she says.
Wally is a small one, a pup, and he darts along the concrete wall toward the scene, stops, darts away. He moves so quickly it’s hard to imagine capturing him in a photo.
Pierce waits and waits. Wally enters the scene, and leaves it. Another chipmunk scrambles up the wall, and the two spend some time nervously approaching the set. Pierce puts down the camera and adjusts the bait.
“It was obvious that I needed more smell behind that,” she says. “So I added smell.”
Soon, one of the chipmunks enters the scene and stands behind the blocks, and she captures the image – a cute, colorful shot, but the chipmunk does not pick up the block.
Pierce puts down the camera and steps away from the scene for a few minutes. That’s when – just like a temperamental, unpredictable star – a chipmunk finally does what she was hoping for all along.
“He picked it up!” she shouts. “He picked up the block! Oh! It got stolen!”