I do love a zoo.

December 11, 2009 at 4:10 am 8 comments


On our way back from the Grampians National Park this weekend, we saw a sign by the side of the road that said ZOO. I demanded that we pull over, despite skepticism on the part of the other passengers. The resulting experience was a huge success. We all got to pat a very sleepy wombat named Wilma. Sublime.

(I didn’t really know what a wombat looked like before moving to Australia, so, for the uninitiated, here’s a photo of one from Flickr by Ben Harris-Roxas.)

When we got back from our adventure, I happened upon Anne Marie Musselman’s photo essay depicting the Sarvey Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Her photographs’ depth and complexity surprised me. I found her images arresting and nuanced; devoid of the many clichés that photographs of animals so frequently contain.

Her images gave animals the same emotional weight that good portraits of people carry. She made me think about what the animal might be feeling, not just what I felt about the animal.

A lot of pictures of animals—and of people—tend to objectify them, rather than make them seem interesting and real. That is easy to do when you are moving from four dimensions down to two. The very nature of photography is to flatten, to edit, to reduce.

Because of Musselman’s dynamic color and striking composition, I was reminded of artist Jill Greenberg’s animal portraits. (This Musselman photograph of a juvenile wolf could be a Greenberg.)

But the two artists diverge  in some significant ways. Greenberg’s work overall has a very different feel to me. Her work makes the animals pictured seem hyperreal, as though they are maybe made of plastic or silicone or are digitally generated.

She photographs animals using the same studio environment that one would use to make pictures of objects for advertisements. She lights a baboon the way she would light a package of soap, a piece of jewelry, or a toy. Greenberg literally objectifies her living subjects.

And the result is that, when I look at her pictures, I don’t think about the animal as a being. I think about it as a thing. I think about what I want from it—how it entertains me, how it pleases me, how pretty it is.

Looking at these two pictures of hers, I think about the dog as a “dog” and the polar bear as a crazy, mythical, white beast. Greenberg is constantly nodding to clichés, popular mythology, and the way we project human qualities onto animals. Many of her pictures contain human gestures manifested by animals. A bear covering its face, for example;

a pig “smiling.”

Musselman’s images lend her subjects a dignity that I appreciate. I find that I am curious about the animals she renders, and I wonder how they are feeling.

And I wonder about the balance between my species and theirs. Her own statement says it well, “The more I was around these animals, the more I saw their inner beauty and intelligence…the more frustrated I became by our world and how much of nature is neglected or destroyed.”

Sigh… I love you, Wilma.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. photophilanthropy  |  December 11, 2009 at 4:17 am

    And, if you’re in the mood for some cute, Anne Marie Musselman has another photo essay on behalf of Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary http://photophilanthropy.org/slideshow/gallery_annemariemusselman2.html

    Reply
  • 2. Aline Sibomana  |  December 11, 2009 at 5:04 am

    Eliza,

    Wow the pictures are amazing and you are an amazing writer and I can’t believet the picture of that pig that is priceless. Also,the bear are they all taken by someone you know that soo cool I miss you..

    Reply
    • 3. photophilanthropy  |  December 11, 2009 at 7:50 am

      Hey Aline! I don’t know either of the artists I was writing about–I wish I did! I just know their work from looking at it on the interweb. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Reply
  • 4. annie marie musselman  |  December 11, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Dear Eliza,

    Your insights are beautiful, I hope we can meet someday, thank you!!!!!

    Annie Marie

    Reply
  • 5. JimRLL  |  December 11, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    I think you really nailed the comparison here. While I like Greenberg’s work because, well, animals are just always interesting to me, I think Annie Musselman’s photos go way beyond, or at least go to a different place. A more complex place.

    Greenberg’s photos look hyper real. Musselman’s (I went to her site to look at more examples) look much more immediate and tense.

    Reply
  • 6. jovita  |  December 11, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    I am proud to call Musselman my friend. She is truly on a course to offer misunderstood creatures a new face. She is not just a voyeur, but has volunteered to help rehab the same wild animals she photographs. She is amazing, like her message and her art. Thanks for sharing!

    http://www.anniemusselman.com/

    Reply
  • 7. random thursday « little.red.dress  |  January 7, 2010 at 3:26 am

    […] 2010 January 7 by kirri I found this post on PhotoPhilanthropy today.  The author, Eliza Gregory, talks about the difference in style of […]

    Reply
  • 8. Jess  |  January 7, 2010 at 5:21 am

    Hello! *waves*

    I stumbled across your blog via WordPress’ frontpage and just loved this particular post. Anne Marie’s photos inspired a post of my own (http://myfirstbub.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/he-wont-hurt-a-fly/) – it is so important to me that my son, due in April, will grow up with an empathy for animals.

    Jess
    http://MyFirstBub.wordpress.com

    Reply

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"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

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