After a protracted battle with mice in his upstate New York house, Phil Underdown began counting the ones he caught in no-kill traps and released outside. When the number reached 200, his methods changed. “I didn’t start out as a killer,” writes Underdown in a statement about his series “House Mice”. But “around the time that we had to pull down the ceiling in the dining room to rid it of a mouse infestation, it dawned on me that the released mice were simply finding their way back inside.” The 200 he caught were “in reality more like 20 or so repeat offenders.” So Underdown put down snap traps, and began photographing the results.
For Underdown, the series was a way to acknowledge that often, “things don’t end so well for the animals with whom we share the spaces of our daily lives.” One early viewer of the series told Underdown the images brought to mind Weegee’s crime scenes—both share a grisly combination of banality and pathos. The pictures get close enough to show tiny mouse faces twisted in surprise, and stay far enough away that they appear small on the expanses of concrete and warm-toned wood—it’s clear from these pictures that Underdown has given a lot of thought to taking the lives of these mice. He writes, “Frozen in the moment of an unexpected death that happened so quickly their eyes are still open, mouth still reaching for the bait…I can’t help but ponder the eventual end of my own life, knowing it’s coming but not knowing when. Is it our ability to ignore these thoughts that allows us to carry on in the face of our certain death, but that also explains our capacity for cruelty towards others? These thoughts lead me in circles unexpectedly hard to tune out, like the jarring snap of a mousetrap on the bathroom floor.”