It is the photograph that has introduced the world to art in the age of reproduction, the copy becoming the way in which we understand the original. And so it is that the photograph is the means to literally objectify our world. We gaze upon photographs as a means to travel beyond our limited scope and we take in what lies inside the frame and unconsciously disregard all else. And while we understand intellectually the need to question what we are told, seeing is believing in the sighted world.
It is for this reason that many become photographers; they need to tell their stories without words. Words are creation of the left brain, the way in which we translate experience into a complex coding that creates reality through the abstraction of language. But the photograph operates in the right brain; it speaks all languages simultaneously. Anyone looking at a photograph can read it, although various interpretations of the same photograph are certainly possible and likely. And so it is that in the photographs of Boza Ivanovic collected in Out of the Wild: Zoo Portraits (Glitterati Incorporated) that we are given layers of meaning in each image, each layer to be slowly peeled back and considered on its own merit.
“I did not focus on photographing animals until after I was recuperating from a motorcycle accident. The picture that rekindled my love for animal photography was taken at the San Diego zoo in Southern California when I was there for the sole purpose of taking my then six-year-old son. It was a photograph of a tiger. The beast, as I saw it, was in a perfect, mysterious combination of darkness and light. Since then on, I have focused all my energy to develop the kind of animal photography that would portrait the beauty, traits and characteristics of these caged animals. I have come to know and develop great admiration and respect for all the animals I have photographed since it requires quite a large amount of time and patience to have all the necessary elements to come together to take just one photograph.”
At first glance at Ivanovic’s photographs, we are struck by a high contrast graphics that draw us in, for darkness is never so radiant when light shines through its untenable depths. Set against these vast and impenetrable fields of black are animals, exotic and foreign to our normal lives. These are not the creatures we observe in the course of our day, not our domesticated pets or the livestock that provides us with food, apparel, or accessories. The animals of Ivanovic’s photographs are not creatures of comfort or creatures of use. They are creatures of curiosity, creatures of grandeur, creatures of dreams and nightmares, creatures of a world not our own, for each lives within a confined area, in a zoo.
When we look at each of his photographs the boundary between Us and Them collapses. Ivanovic’s photographs provide us with the rare opportunity to focus our energies on all that is familiar and foreign to us in these creatures, for he has stripped the animals of their setting so that we may contemplate them as they are. Set apart from their context, literally lost in space, we look at these animals denuded of context, seeing them plain and clear, rather than as we wish or expect them to be.
We are not given the myths and legends of the heroic portrait, even though many of these creatures have a dignity and honor that belies their circumstance. We are not given the titillation of field study, where we can observe them in their natural environment and live vicariously through the freedom that Nature bestows. Rather, Ivanovic’s photographs ask us to consider these animals on their own terms; we are looking at portraits of individuals as much as they are archetypes of the mind. A lion is a lion as much as he is his own being, and the more we gaze upon his form, the more we begin to feel the power of silence. There are no distractions, no signs to create meaning. Without the benefit of a setting, we can state endlessly, creating and recreating our own interpretation of that which we are seeing and feeling.
Ivanovic recalls, “Since I first got a camera in my hands, people were not my primary interest. In my late teens early twenties, living it what is now known as the former Yugoslavia, I used to jump the walls in the zoos to get in, since I did not have enough money to pay for the ticket, to be able to photograph animals. These walls were at least six feet tall and were lined with broken glass and bared wire.
“I would then spend at least half day taking pictures of the animals on display. Of course, the quality of my work back then does not compare with my work today but when I look back, these humble beginnings were the start of Out of The Wild.”
The animals Ivanovic captured with his camera were living in captivity and each photograph reflects their singularity, their separation from all that is their natural reality. As he observes, “The animals are in the zoos not in the wild but I wanted to show the emotions and characteristics of individuals to accomplish that I needed bars and glass out of the image (glass is very thick and always distorts the image). The background can also be busy and can take your attention away from the animal, Having clean background and no bars will allow the viewer to concentrate on emotional side of the photograph.”
It is in the instance of the lion, that a grandeur is conferred, because in Ivanovic’s lion we know the greatness that graces us, from within and from without. There is a pride and a humility, a purity and an honesty that the lion evokes. His visage takes my breath away, over and over again. Perhaps this is a tribute to the patience and discipline that Ivanovic exhibited to secure this shot.
For four days he waited outside the lion cage at the Los Angeles Zoo. Four days, from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, day after day, to watch the lion sleep. The king slept, oblivious to Ivanovic, and so he stayed, a testimony to the deference the king of the jungle demands. Until it is he awakens, Ivanovic there to witness the moment. He recalls, “It was beautiful and powerful, and at the same time, very peaceful. It became quite clear that every animal had its own distinct personality. He seemingly fierce lion may really be a gentle soul, while the outwardly cute monkey may have real anger management issues. It took hours of observation to get to know each creature.”
Ivanovic has photographed sixty-three zoos in nine countries, viewing countless animals kept in a wide array of conditions. Having spent so much time looking carefully at these animals, he became highly sensitive to their emotional states. As he notes, “If you think about it, these animals are in very unnatural situations.” But ironically, he has captured them so that they seem calm, placid, excited, even; but not traumatized in any way. This is the magic of his eye and his camera.