The following is a revised and expanded (September, 2017) version of an article I wrote for Le Journal de la Photographie. It appeared there on February 25, 2013 and applies equally to the images in the books Animal and Other Animals:
“Thank God I didn’t know what I was doing.”
"When I finish a painting, I don't try to interpret what I've done."
Objects of Contemplation
When asked about what I do when I make an image, my first thought is that I don’t work conceptually. In other words, I don’t have an idea or concept that I am trying to illustrate, investigate, or portray. Having been a conceptual artist earlier in my life, I discovered this approach to be too confining, so I abandoned it.
What I do instead is act upon a compelling emotion by making an object of contemplation in the form of a photograph. This is the beginning of a process.
In the case of Animal (the first of three closely related projects including Other Animals and Animal Studies), the initial emotion was too complex to define and concerned the reaction I had to a photograph of the only non-human animal with which I have ever lived, Sadie the cat.
More than twenty years old, Sadie the cat had died after suffering from several severe illnesses over several years’ time. During those years, my wife Ellen and I kept Sadie alive by forcing pills down her throat, administering sub-cutaneous fluids by injection to the neck, and in other ways ministering to her failing health. In short, we established the kind of physical intimacy that only caregivers can have with a patient.
After Sadie’s death, Ellen pinned a snapshot she had made of the living Sadie to a wall in our apartment. This was not an ordinary snapshot but an extreme close-up of Sadie apparently staring into the camera’s lens—an image amazingly evocative of her living presence.
As you might imagine, what predominated in my mind at first were feelings of loss and sadness. What followed, however, were feelings of puzzlement about life, both human and non-human. Questions, but vague questions. Perhaps kept purposely vague, because I wanted to experience the emotion as fully as possible. I say “perhaps” because even my thoughts and motivations were unclear. In retrospect, I think I was trying to avoid the phenomenon known as "verbal overshadowing" in which the left hemisphere of the brain, which thinks in words, displaces the product of the right hemisphere, which thinks in pictures—the description that kills the image.
What I did, eventually, know I wanted to do was photograph a variety of non-human animals so that I could look at them, get to know them better, as one can only do through rendering them in an artistic medium*, while allowing myself the freedom to make transformative changes, and then look at them, and think about them, again. These are the aforementioned “objects of contemplation.”
But the process hasn’t ended there. Working on a series of images the way I do, there is always a cumulative effect—the way preceding images affect my current focus. And while I don’t want to describe what I do, or have done, in words**, I haven’t avoided the words of others. I’ve read extensively, from Darwin to Derrida, on the subject of non- human animals—ethology, genetics, philosophy, ecology. These readings have informed my work in some small and subtle ways and have certainly made me feel more educated. I now know something of what we share with other animals and something of what we don’t share as separate species—and that, because of what we don’t share, we can never completely know what it is like to be a seal, a monkey, a toucan, a pelican, a fish, a hyena, or a frog.
*My artistic process begins with a photograph. Then I use digital imaging software to work on the image in ways that are similar to darkroom techniques but with the kind of precise control that makes it possible to treat it as if it were a drawing.
**In retrospect I will say this: I think that the animals, depicted in a space where the figure has little, if any, background, allows each image to be seen as a present experience, as if we are encountering an individual of another species unexpectedly, coming upon it perhaps even in that most emotionally vulnerable of places: a dream.