An intoxicating scent of rose incense fills the air in Will Buckley's ArtServices Gallery.

The scent is fitting, given he's busy installing his latest photography exhibit—a large-format celebration of urban elephants and Buddhas, four years in the making.

Though he hasn't offered the service in a decade, custom frame samples line a corner of the shop, along with every imaginable art supply known to man.

"It's just still there," Buckley says, referring to the rows of brushes and tubes of paint. "I'd love to get rid of it," he continues, with a chuckle.

"I mostly deal in antiquities, art resale and stuff like that," he says. Memorabilia—including vintage lobby cards, a shadowbox containing a gun purportedly used by Roy Rogers and another displaying Andy Warhol's autograph line the now-gallery's walls.

"I tend to work in themes. It basically started with me shooting these urban elephants," Buckley reminisces, as he puts up one of the show's pieces that he shot during one of many trips to Thailand and Cambodia.

He says the animals belong to poor people who bring them into town as an accessory for begging. The locals, he points out, consider them good luck and tip the pachyderms' owners.

"It's not a new thing," he explains. "You know, you go to the big city and some people come in and be hookers; other people are thieves; other people sell chicken wings."

One image shows a baby elephant inside a bar, being entertained by patrons—unlikely insurance for the survival of a disappearing breed.

"An elephant like that eats probably 200 pounds of bananas a day or something, so you can't afford to keep an elephant as a pet," he says. "They don't really have any use anymore. They were the original heavy-duty equipment thing, for farming, construction, transport—I've even seen pictures of them with cannons mounted on their backs for warfare."

So, given Buckley's love of contrasts, the exhibit was born.

"Their presence is incredible," he says of the hulking subjects. "I don't like to use the word 'spiritual,' but they have a physical presence, and serenity, and calmness, and awareness that is just mind-blowing."

Armed with his trusty Canon G10, he approached them keeping in mind Aesop's fable of the five blind men and the elephant, highlighting each part of their unique anatomy.

"Occasionally, I've run into pissed-off elephants," he says. Guides warned him that one surprised response to his camera's flash, and he'd be toast.

Regardless, he got as close to the creatures as the shot required sans the help of a zoom lens. "My photography goes back to the antiwar stuff in the '60s," he says, "so I'm used to being tear-gassed and stuff like that."

Buckley recognizes that he's attracted to odd subject matters and says popularity has never been his goal.

"It doesn't go over too big in the United States, let's put it that way," he says. "There's not a lot of awareness of Buddhism maybe, and then, the wildlife thing tends to be—I don't know, kind of stylized—like that photo up there," he says, pointing at an image he took of an elephant walking through grass.

For Buckley, it's a familiar feeling. His past subjects include the child warriors of Bangkok and bullfighting.

"What I was shooting for was that moment when the sword hits the bull and the bull dies, but it still stands for another five, 10 seconds before his system shuts down and falls over," he says. At the time, he couldn't find a gallery willing to hang it, and the show has remained shelved since.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, Asian elephants are in serious decline due to black-market ivory poachers, the reduction of their natural habitat and the capture of wild elephants for domestic use—the same practice Buckley displays in his show.

His work, he says, is a snapshot in time of a dying practice. "A lot of what I do is try to record things that are disappearing," he says.

In the case of the urban elephant, this posture rings true.

“Unfortunately, the governments in Bangkok have banned [urban] elephants. Basically, the animal rights people said, ‘Well, they’re being abused’—and yes and no,” he says. “They’re not hamburgers, let’s put it that way; 200 pounds a day of food—the best elephant camps only got 12 to 15 elephants—they can’t feed any more than that, so there are not many elephants left in these countries because of that,” Buckley says. “This is one way they were surviving.”

Elephants & Buddhas
5:30-8 pm Friday, Feb. 8. ArtServices Gallery
557 W Cordova Road, 660-1456