Thursday, February 17, 2011

On photography and how it's changed our perception of animals.

Pictures of animals are now ubiquitous, but the ability to capture animals on film was a significant challenge in the early era of photography. In Developing Animals, Matthew Brower takes us back to the time when Americans started taking pictures of the animal kingdom, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the moment when photography became a mass medium and wildlife photography an increasingly popular genre.

Allen Grant Wallihan, Brought to Bay, 1894.

Curator of the University of Toronto Art Centre and lecturer in museum studies in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

Q: You write: "It is no longer possible for us to have an 'authentic' encounter with an animal." Can you explain what you mean by this?

A: This is John Berger’s position in Why Look at Animals? He argues that modern humans are alienated from nature by capitalism and technology so that they can no longer meaningfully engage with animals. He also suggests that animals that surround us, like pets or those in zoos, have been marginalized by modern technology and society so that they too are incapable of authentic engagement. Pets are merely dependent creatures and zoo animals are diminished and unreal in comparison to their authentically wild counterparts. Berger is thus comparing our modern encounters with his fantasy of an encounter with a truly wild – and therefore real – animal. It’s a compelling fantasy. When I first came across Berger’s argument it seemed to make sense to me. There were real, ‘wild’ animals that weren’t dependent on humans and then there were the other animals that depended on us in some way and were thus not really natural.

However, as I started to think through his contention, and a conversation with Jonathan Burt really helped here, it became clear to me that the idea that our encounters with animals aren’t authentic is not only erroneous, but also dangerous. It suggests that the animals that surround us aren’t deserving of consideration as they aren’t authentic, it suggests that (modern) humans are unnatural, and it posits an imagined realm of deep nature from which we are necessarily excluded. Yet we are surrounded by animals in our daily lives and, even if we want to discount pets, there are still many of them existing outside of human control. For example, in Toronto I am constantly encountering raccoons. My neighbors and I are involved in an ongoing struggle with local raccoons over access to our garbage and to our roofs and decks. Dismissing them as inauthentic because they live in the city, rather than the countryside or the bush, strikes me as a mistake. They’re real animals whose desires and behaviors exceed our control. The argument in my book suggests that this mistake is so easy to make because we are comparing the animals we encounter to the image of the wild animal in nature that wildlife photography helps construct.

What struggles did you encounter throughout the course of your research?

A: When I began my research, animal studies wasn’t recognized as an area of study, which made it difficult to explain to other academics what was at stake in my work. This also meant that there wasn’t a lot of work on the visual representation of animals that was asking the same types of questions that I was. As a consequence, I needed to read across a lot of fields and time periods to find things that might be relevant rather than having a set body of literature I needed to address. One of the most interesting problems was dealing with the mass of possible source material. There are an enormous number of animal representations that were produced in the period I look at. Narrowing my focus to photography and looking at the development of animal photography as a practice enabled me to focus on the genealogy of the social context of the works and their circulation rather than focusing on the biographical conditions of their production.

What is your favorite early example of wildlife photography?

A: I’m very fond of the book's cover image (left), John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s Deer Parking of 1852. It’s an odd image that can be difficult for a contemporary viewer to read. It shows a lumpy, stuffed deer that has been set in the woods and photographed. While it’s tempting to see it as a faked wildlife photograph, the image really reveals the difference between the Victorian understanding of nature and our contemporary one. My hope is that thinking through this difference can help us realize that our understandings of nature are, in fact, culturally constructed and not simply natural.

Q: What do you make of contemporary representations of domesticated animals (especially popular websites and blogs that feature such photos)?

A: There are many interesting things going on in the presentation of domesticated animals online. Catblogging is enormously popular, cute-blogging around baby animals is also huge, and then there are the strange phenomena of Lolcats and Stuff on my Cat. At a minimum, these activities suggest that people are really interested in looking at and engaging with animals. I also think that a big part of the appeal is the sense that while animals may do tricks and perform, they don’t act in the way that humans do. There’s a sense in looking at these images that while the cats may be attempting to engage their owners, they aren’t directly playing to the camera like so many people online are. In other words, we can look at the animals and believe that these are things they really do; they’re not just exhibitionists trying to get our attention.


Matthew Brower is author of Developing Animals: Wildlife and Early American Photography, which combines approaches in visual culture, critical animal studies, and the history of photography to consider the photograph's role in the social production of animals. See a table of contents here.

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