Sleeping Lion, 2005
Chalk Birds, 2009
We have a complicated relationship with animals, perhaps founded in the idea that we are not one of them. As humans, we enjoy creating hierarchies where there may be done, consistently creating artificial tests of intelligence that elevate us above the animal kingdom.By presenting and reinforcing false walls between ourselves and the natural world, we do more harm than good. Animals are the creatures Nature put forth to create balance in the cycle of life. Yet we have altered this balance in a myriad of ways.
Colleen Plumb’s monograph, Animals Are Outside Today (Radius Books) is a powerful look at the way in which we have heroicized, romanticized, anthromorphized, appropriated, incarcerated, ignored or alternately observed animals in the world. As Lisa Hostetler writes in the introduction, “Plumb’s photographs are not those of an animal-rights activist, wildlife photographer, or social documentarian…. If art is a form of philosophy, Animals Are Outside Today is less a manifesto and more a thought poem.” Indeed, taken individually or as a group, Plumb’s photographs are a meditation on the complex ways in which we consume animals that, if not for her questioning eye, we might not notice at all. Plumb speaks with The Click about her work.
Plumb recalls, “My parents gave me a camera for my birthday around fourth grade, a Bell & Howell camera, rectangular-shaped like an ice cream sandwich. Very ‘70s. I carried it by its string-loop on my wrist. I remember the button, flush with the camera top and the way you'd press it down into the camera. I vividly remember that camera. The sound it made. Its weight. I made albums of vacation photos and stuff. My family drove out west to the mountains one summer and I took pictures along the way. I loved my photo album with the cellophane cover pages that peeled back and the pictures stuck on to some type of surely non-archival sticky page. When I was a little older, a teenager, I would spend hours at bookstores looking at photo books. I'd take the bus from Rogers Park in Chicago to the Evanston Barnes & Noble and look at Avedon and Life magazine collections –just poring over whatever was there. A lot of photojournalism and street photography—I'd get lost reading and reading the images. I loved Atget. I think it provided a kind of escape. I was alone and just looking.
“My first photography class was in college—I was a graphic design major but I spent forever in the darkroom. So cliche, but the solitude and exhilaration of developing the images made a big impact. I didn't change my major to photography but I was tempted. After graduating I worked at a design firm for several years. That really gave me good business/client contact experience, but I felt like I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing. I decided impulsively in one day to apply to graduate school and called Columbia College to make an appointment; I went for an interview with John Mulvaney and—I am not even kidding—I started grad school three weeks later. What an awakening in just a few weeks time. I’ll never forget the practically giddy, walk-though-fear feeling of exact rightness doing that.
“I began the boot camp of grad school and started absorbing everything about photography. Actually, I was really lost in the beginning (as far as a thesis), but I worked constantly. I just went out and made photographs all the time and printed and brought work to critiques and tried to make sense of it all. It was so intense. Through working with some great mentors, I feel fortunate to have discovered a line of inquiry that has held me all these years. I was looking at the role of artifice, and how representations of/substitutions for the natural world are everywhere. Then I really zoned into looking at the ways animals are woven into our lives. It makes sense, if I analyzed it, because I have lived in Chicago my whole life, and yet have felt this longing or affinity (like so many people, right?) to live closer to nature or wilderness or quiet. There is a real contrast there. So my work is probably mirroring my internal world.
“I think the work keeps leading me along my way. At the end of graduate school I was in a group exhibition in Chicago. That show, and my thesis show, introduced me to exhibiting work. It was a whole new challenge to figure out how to participate in this larger conversation. Photographing Animals Are Outside Today series over a period of fourteen years, I found myself at times questioning if I should keep going, and then eventually going deeper into my inquiry—and I made book maquettes all the time. Working with a sequence helps me to understand what I am up to—I’d think about what was missing or how to control and convey a mood. I go into a type of editing zone that feeds the whole process. The sequence, I feel, turns individual images when taken together, into the rhythmic organism of a book. When someone goes through the book, they can have a ride—up, down, along— all sorts of feelings from one image to the next. That’s my goal anyway.
“The roots of this project were tapped over fifteen years ago: I was photographing in black and white, working on my thesis. I was studying Meatyard’s work; his bizarre pictures were a big influence on me—they inspired me because they are so disorienting and dark and strange. And funny! It cracked me up that he was out posing his kids in all those scary-looking places, creating other worlds. It was at that time that I realized that a lot of animals and plants—both real and fake—were predominant themes in my pictures.
“With that, I embarked on my project in a much more conscious way. I began to study the notion of artifice, and the prevalence of representations of living things surrounding us. I thought about perception, and if (on any level) it even mattered if something was the real thing or just a stand-in? I began working in color, allowing the artifice to sing louder.
“Through that exploration I became more and more focused on the animals. Everywhere, I saw representations of them. I asked myself: what is it that we getting from this? Does it satisfy some instinct to be close to animals, even if they aren’t real? If it’s only the substitution, are we then desensitized to the actual? All of these questions were swirling in my head and gave me many threads to start following. I made checklists of places and things to photograph. I went to a meatpacking plant, to the backlot of a tannery, to dog shows, to the circus. Each experience pushed me deeper into thinking about the contradictory and imbalanced relationship we have with animals.
“Also, I came across animals constantly in my day-to-day life with my kids: going to aquariums, museums, farms, fairs, vacations. While buying groceries at the Middle Eastern market in my neighborhood I found the lamb head. Every book I’d read to my daughters featured animals, that were then infused into our days and their drawings. I didn’t know at the beginning what it would all become; it was just an exploration that kept unfolding, teaching me, and giving me a lot to research.
“Certain pictures were heartbreaking or jarring to photograph. The dog Bella for instance—that was terrible. I saw her from the corner of my eye, dead on the road. And her owner drove up and found her lying there while I was photographing. He seemed defeated, almost emotionless. I just offered condolence and asked if I could help somehow. Neither of us mentioned the camera I was holding.
“I went to Louisiana during the oil spill in 2010, and that was hard to witness too. Photographing the dead animals was upsetting on many levels. It was unsettling but felt important to include because it addresses the realities of loss and gives a more complete picture of the range of ways we encounter animals.
“I admire animals for their loyalty. And the big, highly intelligent animals for their majesty and family structures, and the little rodent type animals for their resourcefulness, and birds are just always a big dose of awe and beauty. I like the effect that animals have on me.
“The animal I am mostly around is our dog Edmund. He is a husky-shepherd mix, obsessed with squirrels. He amuses us continually. He is always bumping his head on the kitchen table. I need that baby-proofing foam stuff for the bottom rim of the table. He actually caught and killed a squirrel one day in the forest preserve. He was off leash and I was helpless to stop it. My kids witnessed the whole thing and it made my younger daughter cry. Edmund pranced around with the carcass and we were just all screaming for him to drop it. So totally disgusting and sad, yet utterly contradictory because somehow I felt glad for Edmund to have had that chance to exercise his instinctive behavior.
“Even with that, maybe the quality that I most admire is an animal’s ability to connect me with a feeling of gratitude for all the grace and beauty I see around me. Animals can remind and reconnect us to those parts of ourselves.”
horses Horizon, 1998
Burying Jack, 2006