I am a photographer, not a naturalist. My teachers were legendary artists Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White. What they taught me was the value of traditional artistic concerns, such as good composition, interesting light, and compelling subject matter.
The photographs shown here were made from 1995-2001. When I started this series, I was a bit insecure. So many great (and not so great) artists had tackled such subjects since the beginning of time. How could I add to this daunting history.
One thing I did not want to do was simply document my animals, so I chose not to shoot in color and not to show their environment. Rather, I choose to look closely and abstractly—to see my subjects for their inherent beauty, oddness, mystery. For this, I shot often with macro lenses, so I could get close, and worked with grainy, black-and-white films, printed in sepia, hoping to give them an old school, timeless feel.
I worked in zoos and aquariums, not in the wild or underwater. This meant I could almost always find my subjects; they couldn’t get too far away. The other advantage was that I could isolate and freeze them in a constrained space, almost as though they were models, posing for me in a studio.
Photographing animals is very different from photographing people. You can’t tell an elephant where to stand, and you can´t ask a skate to smile or a lizard to say “cheese.” Instead, you must be very patient and wait, hoping your subject will do what you want it to do, or maybe something else unexpected that might make a good picture. When animals do cooperate, you have to be ready, because most won’t stay in one position long. You have only a few seconds, and often less, to get your shot.
As I watch and wait, I listen to other zoo visitors discuss the animals in human terms. “Look at that,” they say. “He’s smiling at us.” Or, Poor thing, “she’s bored.” Or, “doesn’t that monkey look like Uncle Ike?”
In some ways animals do resemble humans, no doubt. After all, they are our forebearers. Still, I believe animals are their very own creatures, with unique, often surprising and altogether amazing characteristics. And that’s what I’ve tried to capture in these pictures.