“You can’t be friends with a squirrel — a squirrel is just a rat with a cuter outfit,” Sarah Jessica Parker once quipped. Obviously she had never encountered Tommy Tucker, a friendly gender-bending squirrel from the 1940s who took cute outfits to a whole new level.
Despite Tommy’s male anatomy, photographer Nina Leen and his owner, Zaidee Bullis, styled the squirrel in drag for a LIFE magazine feature in 1944. Prints of those photos are now on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in Chelsea. Although the word “unique” has been overused nearly to the point of meaninglessness, it deserves a comeback for this fusion of mid-century doll outfits, LIFE‘s quintessential photojournalistic style, and sciurid drag.
What is “sciurid”? It wouldn’t be unique if it involved a word you recognize. “Sciurid” is that niche adjective for rodents in the Sciuridae family, which includes squirrels, chipmunks, and marmots.
Tommy Tucker was an orphaned squirrel in Washington, DC, when Zaidee Bullis adopted him. For some reason the squirrel inspired Bullis to sew custom-made doll dresses for him to flaunt. (There were weird people in the 1940s too, and Bullis didn’t have to deal with PETA, which didn’t exist until 1980.) Although Tommy occasionally bit his adopted mother, he otherwise went along with the shenanigans and donned the outfits. He had a free place to stay.
In 1944, the young Nina Leen was working on freelance photography assignments for LIFE. Because she had prior experience with animals, the magazine asked her to photograph Tommy Tucker. She would go on to work for LIFE for the next three decades, promoted to a full staff photographer in 1945 and working behind the camera relentlessly until the magazine ceased weekly publication in 1972. With her work featured on 44 covers, Leen was a propelling force in LIFE‘s widely acknowledged role in redefining photojournalism. It was a remarkable run for the Russian-born artist, who grew up in Switzerland, Italy, and Germany before emigrating to New York in 1939 to escape Europe’s escalating war.
Leen’s knack for photographing animals is the X factor in this work. It’s very difficult to get animals to cooperate with a camera, let alone animals in costumes. She spent years honing her skill of coaxing creatures to pose for pictures. One of Leen’s earliest jobs was photographing animals at a zoo, and her first spread for LIFE depicted bats from the Bronx Zoo. During her many years at the magazine, she kept a pet turtle at home, which was tame compared to her pet monkey and domesticated snakes as a teenager. She also adopted a puppy named Lucky who was frequently featured in photo essays for LIFE and made several appearances on film and TV.
Leen’s talent for capturing animals at just the right angle and getting them to engage with the camera shines through in this eccentric series that Daniel Cooney has resurrected from the archives.
Nina Leen’s photographs of Tommy Tucker are on view in the exhibition Lenslady at Daniel Cooney Fine Art (508–526 W 26th Street, #9C, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 16.
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