Using high-speed photography and a pure white background, a new book makes a visceral connection between us and our fellow beings’ beauty and emotion.
There are moments in all people’s lives when they click with someone else. A locking of the eyes can do it, as can a shared emotional experience. And when it happens, it’s revelatory. Now, think back. When was the last time that happened with a tarantula? Or a mountain lion? Or a chameleon, for that matter? Photographer Andrew Zuckerman’s Creature (Chronicle Books, $60), a lyrical album of animal portraiture, is designed to kindle just such a kinship between the viewer and each of 63 subjects, from mammals to reptiles, even fish.
During the course of five years, Zuckerman photographed any animal he could get his lens on. Each studio shoot, which lasted from a few minutes to several hours, produced its own set of challenges, some technical, others more behavioral. The hyena episode, for example, necessitated a cage—for the photographer. “They [shoots] all required a customized, unique approach to figure out the best way to get to the outcome I needed, which was connectivity,” says Zuckerman—in other words, a personal tie between him and each subject that he hopes will translate to an intimate bond for the observer as well. “I’m there to serve the viewer’s experience,” he says.
Although they appear in an array of poses and from a variety of viewpoints, all members of Zuckerman’s menagerie are crisply detailed against a pristine white background, a device that helps unite viewer and subject. Indeed, by extracting the creature from its typical habitat—be it an African savanna or a boreal forest—and immersing it in a “white world,” as he calls it, Zuckerman leaves little visual context that might bias an audience. As a result, the animal evolves into a fellow sentient being. “It’s not, ‘We’re in this environment, and they’re in that environment, look how different we are,’ ” he says. “By isolating these subjects, I find that it’s easier to relate to them.” The white space also helps to both highlight the species’ variety and celebrate their beauty: A Tokay gecko, for example, whose orange-speckled skin recalls Australian Aboriginal dot paintings, and a five-horned rhinoceros beetle, whose honey-colored carapace shines as if enameled, are both elegant in their own right. (For photos of these two animals, see Bonus Shots, right.)
For inspiration, Zuckerman looks to the work of John James Audubon, noting that “[Audubon], too, distilled the subject, put it in a silhouetted environment so that we could see the animal more clearly.” (Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Zuckerman’s next book of animal portraits will focus solely on birds.) His strategy also borrows from the life-size dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, whose taxidermic animals are effectively frozen in time. “[Creature] is sort of finding a way in a two-dimensional space to create the essence of the animal in a way that taxidermy does,” he says. By employing high-speed photography, Zuckerman was also able to capture those ephemeral moments that often go missed in the blink of an eye.
Paging through Creature, it might be tempting to describe the expressions of some animals—such as the seemingly imploring gaze of a thumb-sucking slow loris or the almost wary, sidelong glance of a wild boar—as distinctly humanlike. Zuckerman, however, is quick to dismiss that comparison. “Animals, humans, we all experience life and we all reflect on it, and we all react to [it],” he says. “Humans don’t own emotions.” And there’s something comforting in that.
See videos of Creature in-the-making here.
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