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An archive of contemporary artists who explore humans' interactions with animals and nature

Read the author's notes about relevant conferences, exhibitions, opportunities, etc.

Sheng Wen Lo

Sheng Wen Lo

There’s a Peter Marlow photo that I love, “A bear sits alone in a pit in Kaliningrad zoo,” taken in Russia. The moment when I saw Sheng Wen Lo’s series White Bear, I thought of this image. It’s curious how pictures like these have the power to incite intense emotions in the viewer, when generally people do not seem to be upset experiencing what’s depicted firsthand.

When I reached out to Sheng, he sent me a comprehensive press kit, and I pored over every file inside. Reading his thoughts and writings about his work was fascinating, and I feel that many of his ideas will affect the way I think about animals and the making of my own photography. There’s so much that I want to share. In the spirit of treating this space as a collection of the artwork I love, and compiling all the information I can find about it, I’ll break the format I traditionally use and begin with Sheng’s artist statement.

From the artist’s statement: “White Bear” depicts polar bears on display and their artificial habitats globally; the project attempts to engage with dilemmas concerning captive animal programs. It has been executed in 26 sites across Europe and China.

“White Bear” is not about polar bears — it studies the visible symptoms amid animals on display and their artificial habitats by focusing on one specific species. These habitats are designed to satisfy both the spectators (audience) and the dwellers (animals). With their effort to mimic the arctic environment, the uncanny structures combined “nature,” “home” and “stage.” Juxtaposed with man-made backgrounds, the enclosures and their furry protagonists formed visions decorated with contrasting elements — grasslands, plateaus, swimming pools, car tires, fake seals, stone stairs, painted icebergs, yachts, airplanes, and even skyscrapers. Under limited space and resources, there are various issues lurking beneath their surfaces.

As natural habitats are being destroyed, it may be reasonable to keep certain species in controlled environments; however, it remains questionable whether some results reflect their causes. The existence of captive white bears portrays this ambiguity. Promoted as exotic tourist-magnets (mega fauna), the bears stand at the singularity points at which the institutions’ contemporary justifications fall into question — the mission of conservation, research and education seem challenged by the interest of entertainment.

Sheng does not subscribe to the belief that “all captive animal programs are evil” or “zoos should not exist,” because, as he states, “animal issues are complex and intertwined with each other.” In an interview about his work, I read that Sheng wishes to avoid anthropomorphism, that he “would not like to make pictures of ‘sad looking’ animals.” He says, “That is not very scientific.”

“I would like to propose another way of looking at animal issues,” Sheng says. “Because when facing these issues, it is very easy to get emotional and let our preconceptions dominate our judgements. In a lot of cases I would argue that is not what [is] best for the animals in the end. There may be a lot of benefits to discuss things scientifically, and make a balance when making judgements.”

While White Bear focuses on polar bears, the project is more broad, using photographs of one species to explore “captive wild animals on display, the dilemma between its intension and cost.” Sheng says, “It is not about whether animals are suitable for captive programs, but rather about whether some animals are not the ideal species to be kept in captivity. Therefore, [I] focused on one particular species, which I believed stand at the crux of this dilemma. In other words, while some animals may benefit from captive programs and serve conservation, education and research purposes, there are species that seems naturally unsuited for artificial habitats.”

Finally, of their man-made habitats, Sheng asks, “I understand it is difficult to use a real iceberg but what is the point of [not] just paint[ing] one instead? Rationally, these bears are born in captivity, so they have probably never seen a real iceberg or a sea lion. I wonder who are the users of these visual objects, and whether the enclosures are homes or stages?”

At first I was attracted to these really beautiful photos that at the same time made me laugh and broke my heart. After spending the better part of a day reading the artist’s words about the work, I feel like I have an entirely new set of considerations to make when photographing animals and when visiting and thinking about zoos. I’m so grateful to know about this work.

Visit artist site: shengwenlo.com

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Catherine Marcogliese

Catherine Marcogliese

Probably my earliest experience of taxidermy is as something mystifying and spooky. It was always exciting to see, especially in an artfully lit natural history museum exhibit, but it was also a little scary to be so close to an animal that I had never seen before, that in its life was wild and dangerous. When looking at the images in Catherine Marcogliese’s series Natural History: Ghosts and Monsters, I can’t tell if the animals look more terrifying or terrified. Like “bad taxidermy” tends to be, some of them are funny. But the animals pictured also make me sad. I imagine the creatures making these expressions as their lives were taken, trying to fend off an attacker or in sheer pain or fright, and now that’s all that’s left of them.

Marcogliese’s photos were taken at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Marseille, France, Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Toulouse, and the Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia, Italy. It’s interesting to consider how styles and practices in taxidermy shift over time or from one region/country to another. I feel like animals used to be depicted as taxidermy in a way that highlighted their aggression and power. Now (and in America), we seem to crave ways of seeing animals that remind us that we are not so different, that they are not beasts but beings with souls akin to our own.

From the artist’s statement: This series of photos attempts to capture the surprising and often bizarre creatures that populate the display cases of museums of natural history. The skulls, skeletons and stuffed animals, with their frozen horrified stares, remnants of passed exploration and classification, tell us as much about our society and our relationship to nature, as they do about the science. They are the haunting witnesses to an era when nature was strange and frightening, something to be controlled, classified, and catalogued.

The photos are presented as portraits, and reworked to accentuate the strangeness of these creatures. I have tried to capture the wonder and awe that I experienced as a young child when visiting museums of natural history. I remember these museums as being dark, dusty, and mysterious – their displays seemingly inhabited by creatures from some gothic fairy tale. The ghostly presence of these specimens in my photographs reflects my tenuous memories of these visits.

Visit artist site: marcogliese.org

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Kellie Smith

Kellie Smith

I honestly have little to say about Kellie Smith’s body of work, Undertaker, aside from an emphatic “Yes.” I felt that way so strongly when first seeing the images, and possibly even more so when reading the accompanying statement. I think this is a lovely, important, beautiful project. After featuring both Julia Schlosser’s and Mary Shannon Johnstone’s work examining companion animal death last month, and thinking a lot about the subject while working on an exhibition proposal the past few weeks, it felt so perfectly fitting to discover Kellie’s lumen prints made using the bodies of dead animals. All three of these artists have explored this heavy topic by making process-oriented photographs, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. There’s something about this taboo subject, the process of grieving an animal, whether it’s wild or a dear friend, that seems to drive artists to create something tactile, using a process that is physical and takes work and time and stillness.

From the artist’s statement: Two dogs, two cats, and a horse that I grew up with died the summer before this project. These pets were very dear to me and I have had many memories with them. The separation from them inspired me to look closer at the bond that humans and animals form. The pain that I feel from the end of their existence leaves me with a longing to bring back their presence, and motivates me to bring to life the aura or soul that I knew they possessed.

What if every animal was given the chance to form a relationship with a human, and therefore given the chance for their soul or spirit to be recognized? The purpose of my project is to bring animals’ presence of existence to a tangible form, especially if they were wild and never interacted with a human. In a similar way that an undertaker bee will carry a fellow bee back to the hive after it dies or is killed, I take the dead animals I find back to my studio, and attempt to humanize them and capture their being.

Many of the animals that I have access to died tragically on the highway and are battered, bloody, and broken. To overcome this grotesque imagery and express the beauty of their remains, I create lumen prints from their body. The photosensitive, black and white darkroom paper reacts with the animal’s biological components and illustrates the presence of their body. To honor the animal, their life, and their being, I adorn them with flowers and other components of nature. These elements pronounce the importance and beauty of the soul the animals possessed during their life. Much like a funeral undertaker will care for the body of the dead and exalt the deceased, I prepare the animal’s body for their final appearance, embellish them with flowers for a composition on the paper, then bury them in their final resting place.

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Christina Heurig

Christina Heurig

Christina Heurig is an art director, set designer, and photographer based in Germany (Berlin) and Switzerland. When she approached me about her work, I was blown away by her diverse portfolio. In addition to making photographic portraits, building miniature models for puppetry theatre and animated films, and designing sets for theatre and film, Christina makes fine art photographs that are beautifully produced. Using elements of surrealism, mystery, and fantasy, Christina “illustrate[s] and explore[s] emotional or cognitive layers of the soul.” I was really intrigued by a handful of “experiments” she had sent me, making scans of taxidermy animals. I’d never seen anything like them before. A series of the images, called Nightly Visitors, is now on her website, and I think it’s some of my favorite photography that I’ve discovered in a long time.

From the artist’s statement for Nightly VisitorsTaxidermied animals are dragged over a flatbed scanner to create grotesque creatures. Partly sinister, partly amusing, these characters recreate the feeling of a nightmarish freak show. Enjoy the ride!

Visit artist site: heartmill.com

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Michael Koch

Michael Koch

In his series eternal collection, German photographer Michael Koch “combines photographs of nature and science and its (re)presentation.” According to the artist, the pictures explore “the space between the imagined and real.” Isolated in fields of gray or black, taxidermy animals, specimens, and skeletons are presented objectively, yet in a way that’s slightly unsettling. There’s such a variety of contrast in the pictures. In many of them, there’s a flatness that’s disorienting and at the same time pleasant; it’s as if everything non-essential has been smoothed away. I love the mystery that this quality adds, particularly in the photograph Parental Care, of a bird with a nest. I feel like I’m looking into a diorama in a natural history museum, searching for the representation of an animal that’s only active in low light.

Visit artist site: michael-koch.jimdo.com

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Mary Shannon Johnstone

Mary Shannon Johnstone

Mary Shannon Johnstone is one of the first artists I learned of who was making exactly the kind of work I wanted to make. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet her, at the Living with Animals conference in the spring of last year, seven years after I first saw and was so influenced by her photography. We had a portfolio review together and I got to see her new project, Stardust and Ashes, in person and hear about how her father’s death had a role in the work. It was one of those bodies of work that is so beautiful, meaningful, and powerful that it leaves you almost speechless. The series is a perfect descendant of Shannon’s Landfill Dogs and Breeding Ignorance; using the cremains of shelter animals that were euthanized before they could find homes, she creates cyanotypes that resemble astronomical objects and celestial events. The resulting images are so poignant, a reminder of animals’ (human and non-human) tiny existence in a massive universe, and of the unique and complicated gift that is mourning a loss of life.

From the artist’s statement: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

I made these cyanotypes with the ashes of euthanized homeless animals from an animal shelter’s crematorium. These animals died with nobody to mourn their passing, except maybe a few overwhelmed shelter workers.

I hope these images serve as a memorial to these animals, who were nobody and nothing. Turned to dust and returned to the cosmos, they become everyone and everything. Just as we all will someday.

For the past decade I have been working with homeless pets and exploring ways to visualize the tragedy of animal overpopulation. Up until now, I have used traditional lens-based photography. For this new work, I was inspired by artists who use simplicity, pulchritude, and heartbreak as their tools. Artists such as Chris Jordan, Michal Rovner, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who draw you in with beauty, but then hit you in the gut with sadness.

Using my own breath and fingers to manipulate the ashes, I work the ashes into celestial configurations while the sun exposes the cyanotype turning the negative space Prussian blue. Then I use the cyanotypes as negatives; scanning, layering, enlarging, rephotographing on a light box, and sometimes adding color. With these images I hope to mourn the passing of thousands of our forgotten companions, and remind us that we are all connected and headed for the same fate: reduced to dust and returned to the stars.

Visit artist site: shannonjohnstone.com

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Dave Jordano

These days I’m thinking a lot about what kind of photography and art I like. I’ve been focused on photography that explores the relationship between humans and animals/nature for a long time – when I visit a new city, I find I’d rather visit a natural history museum or roadside attractions than galleries or an art museum. However, there are still times when I see art on a different topic that speaks to me and I have to find out more. This was my experience seeing Dave Jordano’s work A Detroit Nocturne on Lenscratch earlier this year. I was led to his website, and I was so impressed by the expanse of work there. One body of work that stood out to me was Prairieland, made up of five groups of images that all explore the connection between the midwestern landscape and the people who live there. I couldn’t choose photographs from just one; I love On the Fringes and Interiors so much.

From the artist’s statement: Illinois, while considered of the “Prairie State,” is actually consumed by over 22,000,000 acres of commercialized farmland, or, 80% of its total landmass, making it a land of contradictions. Although deeply rooted in the farming vernacular, its social fabric is made up [of] hundreds of small towns, or more accurately, small communities, populated by people who have created a cultural backdrop of expressive identity and individualism that is unique to American ruralism. As someone who has lived an urban existence all my life, the idea of someone living in the country was as much a mystery as a curiosity.

These photographs explore the connection between the landscape and the people who live within the confines of small town farming areas. My motivation lies more in the way the landscape depicts elements of cultural identity and expression that have been laid upon it by individuals through conscious or unconscious efforts. In this way, I am able to clarify my own personal interpretations through free association and emotional response to the land, that otherwise might be constrained by overly analyzed concepts and theory.

No matter how much of what we perceive the idyllic mid-western rural landscape to be, whether as beautiful rolling hills of natural grassland or endless fields of planted corn, beyond that, there remains a much deeper, more sweetly melancholic tone that pervades the landscape. Artifacts of what we have built, used, and left behind are scattered throughout the remotely and less traveled by-ways of this distinctly American place, leaving behind clues to who we are. These fragments of cultural identity often lie somewhere between perception and reality and are the pictures that have surfaced in my understanding of this place.

Visit artist site: davejordano.com

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Shawn Bush

Shawn Bush

When I saw last summer that Shawn Bush had been selected as the first place winner of the 2017 Lenscratch Student Prize, I scrolled through just a few of the images featured before I agreed that his work is indeed exceptional. So much of the photography I look at explores the essence of the West today, but these images (individually and as a whole) have a feel I haven’t seen before. My experience of the western United States is that the light is always so incredibly high contrast, but the light in Shawn’s photos is so lovely. It adds a dreamlike quality to the pictures, or a feeling that we’re looking at a movie set. If you’re interested in how humans today have idealized the landscape, the American West is a great subject to explore. I love how these pictures seem at the same time romanticized and real, washing the grit in a hazy light and subtle colors while highlighting the abruptness of how humans have made their mark on nature.

A Golden State is currently being published as a book, available for pre-order at skylarkeditions.org.

From the artist’s statement: The Western landscape has captivated the hearts of Americans and others over time. The expansive topography that dominates the territory encapsulates the allure that defines core American ideologies. Cinema, habitual media and commercial industries use the seduction of the Western landscape to sell, define and project a merit of social status. In the name of progress, the topography is constantly changing and shedding its layers to suit the conditional needs of humanity. Employing some of the tactics of cinema that have been used to describe the landscape, “A Golden State” questions the relationship of prescriptive identity to place.

Visit artist site: sheenographs.com

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Isaac Sachs

Isaac Sachs

I saw some prints by Isaac Sachs the last time I was at Blue Sky – I think it was way back in March, for the opening of Zun Lee’s exhibition, Father Figure. A glance at the photographs indicated that the work was about humans in beautiful places in nature, “tourist attractions.” In his series Tourists, Sachs examines the relationship between the tourist and their environment. I love the starkness in the images, and the humor, and I find myself feeling what I think can best be described as shame. Since I started looking at and making a lot of my own photos about human behavior in the places we designate as “natural,” I feel so painfully self-aware that I almost never pose for a photo or take a selfie, or god forbid, an iPhone photo of my hand with a pretty drink in it. I used to always wonder if the photos being made en masse at such tourist locales would ever even be looked at, but that’s changed as social media has become so prevalent. I try to imagine what the act of photographing satisfies in the picture-taker, especially now that content on social media is fleeting by design. It’s such a trite remark but I want to know how many people believe, “If I didn’t take (and post) a picture, was I really there?”

Visit artist site: icantdescri.be

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John Barrow

John Barrow

One of the most common, everyday ways that we experience animals’ existence is by their representations – as decorations, mascots, rides, plush toys. It’s fascinating to me how prevalent animals are in so many parts of the world, yet how unconsidered their lives (and deaths) are. Because I think all humans should be considering this fact more, I’m always intrigued by art that does so.

Artist John Barrow retired from a career as an engineer and computer scientist, and began exploring and learning about photography. Having moved to a small rural village, the material he could explore was his immediate surroundings: the grasslands of the South African highveld and its inhabitants. “The contrast between the relationship of rural dwellers, often living close to subsistence levels, and of urban dwellers to the animal world became clear when I looked at the photographs I was taking,” writes John. “I realised that both groups of people are caught in ambivalent, though very different, relationships with animals. The selection I’m offering here considers mainly urban dwellers and what appears to be a strong and pervasive need to introduce reminders of their animal links and needs into an urban existence.”

From the artist’s statement: Whether deliberately or not, the attitudes of our modern civilisation toward our fellow animals are often reflected in the representations we create. Our public spaces are filled with these representations, not only as specific works of art but also as spontaneous expressions of the space animals occupy in our general consciousness. These embodiments often seem to be substitutes for the Real Thing, for closer coexistence with the natural world.

My aim with this series of photographs is to encourage moments of deliberation about the way we simultaneously relinquish our fellow animals to a lesser plane of existence and also wish to assert our inclusion in a wider world where animals nourish our human experience.

Visit artist site: johnbarrowblog.wordpress.com

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