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Source Photographic Review - Back Issue Archive - Issue 48 Autumn 2006 - Review Page - The Photographed Animal - Useful, Cute and Collected - Book Review by John Taylor.

The Photographed Animal
Useful, Cute and Collected
Book Review by John Taylor

Source - Issue 48 - Autumn - 2006 - Click for Contents

Issue 48 Autumn 2006
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Published by: Museum Folkwang / Steidel
ISBN: 3-86521-209-3
Price: £28.00

Always judge a book by its cover. Designers can expose the heart of a book in one revealing image. For example, the photograph chosen for Elizabeth Edward's Anthropology & Photography 1860-1920 depicts a girl and some men, but neatly exposes the wonder, puzzlement and gap that exists between them. It shows 'Mary Deane, daughter of the Census Officer, on board a government steamer with a group of Onges, Little Andaman 1911'. Little Mary, who may be 5 or 6 years old, stares up blankly at someone out of shot. She is overdressed in an extravagant white dress and large white hat. In front of her are the Onges, a group of boys and young men, some sitting, others standing. They are naked except for loincloths. Some are distracted, but several of them are peering at Mary Deane as if they have never seen anything so strange. This photograph is a perfect summary of many issues in the weird configuration of anthropology in 1911.

Similarly, the cover photograph of The Photographed Animal, like its great subtitle (useful, cute and collected), goes to the heart of the issue. The pretty girl rests her arm on the chimpanzee's shoulder and sniffs the flower the monkey offers. They don't look at one another, and the monkey has a halter round its neck, but the two appear to share more than Mary Deane and the Onges. Here the girl and the monkey are two beautiful creatures relating to one another. It's that David Attenborough moment, as he lay among the gorillas, when different species were happy to be with one another, so it seemed, rather than the one killing the other.Franz Lazi, 1960Franz Lazi, 1960

Yet isn't the Attenborough moment quite rare? Isn't it true that the overwhelming tendency is towards humans harvesting animals in a mix of brutal industries? Certainly, in this book, animals are no better than crops to be cut down, strung up, sliced, diced and bottled. Or they may be even less than useful, just lowly beasts to be toyed with, caged, crushed and discarded. And should anyone think it's we humans who are cruel, with our traps and guns, then just look at how animals prey on one another. So don't be surprised if taxidermists and artists arrange dead animals in ghastly tableaux enacting an improbable 'natural' dance of death.

Clearly it isn't satisfying or modern enough to blame creatures themselves for being cruel. Humans will always outdo them in wanton savagery. Some contemporary artists use dead animals in a disgusting manner not unlike the way Joel Peter Witkin uses human corpses. Given that morally repugnant universe, as shown in his art photographs, is it any wonder that animals should get such short shrift; or that they should be butchered so, or, whether dead or alive, be treated with such contempt?

Humans do not condemn all animals to wretched lives. We save some as domestic pets, and it's dogs that are favoured in this book. Most look content, some look scared, and some that are anthropomorphised look ridiculous, which, of course, again reflects badly on their owners.

Occasionally we see the power and mystery of animals. For example, one shot was taken (somehow) in the midst of a horse race. Another was taken of a large bear, staring straight at the camera (and therefore at you). Both photographs reveal different types of strangeness and authority. Those are qualities we do know animals possess, and we do sometimes love them for that, though we are just as likely to kill them.

At some point, before the torture and butchery, there exists another moment, though its nature is uncertain. At its best, it might be like Attenborough lying among the big apes, where each lets the other be. This case exists in some of the images of unthreatened animals that return the stare of the camera. It doesn't quite exist in the ultimately sad image of the chimpanzee offering the flower. But at its most depressing, this moment might be like Mary Dean and the Onges, where everyone is nonplussed, uneasy or suspicious. That moment is often found in these photographs, where eye meets eye.

Before looking at this book, I made a list of what I'd expect to see in a synoptic view of useful, cute and collected animals. Almost everything was present, catching the whole range of misery and abuse. I missed only dog-fights and cock-fights, though there were plenty of performing animals and a bull fight. In addition to my list, there were numerous unexpected sights, some delightful, many not. As I saw so many photographs of dogs, I wondered if there'd be a picture of a dog-bomb, often used in wartime. There was no such image, but instead, and to my surprise, there was a photograph of a 'Report dog bringing a report to the front line 1916-1917': it shows a dog in flight, leaping across a dug-out or shell-hole. Facing the other way, lying low, are two German soldiers, comrades in arms. A perfect photograph for this book: such magic; such madness.

Other articles by John Taylor:

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