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While photographs of animals are now ubiquitous, from National Geographic to cat videos, historical images of animals are rarely presented for public display. In a delightfully titled exhibition at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs, By Hoof, Paw, Wing or Fin: Creatures in Photographs, a glimpse into animals as subject matter spanning from 1845-2009 is on view.
Peter NISSEN (German), Circus animals from Carl Hagenbeck's Zoological Circus, circa 1891, Albumen print, 17.2 x 23.0 cm
Of equal interest in the exhibition is the variety of photographic processes used to create the photographs, including quarter-plate daguerreotypes, salt prints from collodion negatives, and a calotype negative with selectively applied varnish. The 19th century use of photography for scientific study, the rise of zoos in the United States and Europe, and the mimicking of still life painting provide context for many of the works on view, offering a historical frame of reference.
Edward STEICHEN (American, born in Luxembourg, 1879-1973), Grasshopper and wheat stalk, circa 1921, Toned gelatin silver print, 24.3 x 19.3 cm
Still life with parrot, fruit and goblet, an albumen print made in the 1860s by Ferdinand Küss, framed in an oval matt, is composed in a traditional triangular shape, with the parrot at the pinnacle of power in the image. From a contemporary point of view, some may find the exoticized presentation of a goblet, peaches, berries and a parrot quite humorous. The bird appears to be regally returning the gaze of the photographer as it gently clasps a large, dark berry in its right claw. The absurdity of exorbitant decadence gained through the colonial pillaging of continents can be read into the photograph from a 21st century vantage point.
UNKNOWN AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER, American Express wagon, 1850s, Quarter-plate daguerreotype
Domino Players, North London, a gelatin silver print by Bill Brandt made circa 1934-1936, is an exquisite composition of three men and a dog. Two men in profile on the left edge of the image frame wear black fedoras and jackets. A glimpse of their white shirts and a dangling cigarette create a sense of contrast. In the lower left, a seated man with his head angled down in a dark tweed flat cap wears a black coat and vest with a white shirt and dark tie. None of the men’s eyes make contact with the viewer, and their bodies seem to merge into the scene of a dark wood bar and table with liquor-filled shelves in the background. Only their hands and partial views of their faces reveal their white skin, echoing the most prominent element of the photograph, the bright white furred dog at the center, perched on the bar. The dog and one of the men on the left are nearly at the same height, suggesting the special relationship between men and the creature often described as a man’s best friend. A rugged vibe hangs over the image, with the primal nature of the men and the intelligent poise of the dog creating an eerie, unspoken synergy.
Peter NISSEN (German), Circus bear with trainer, likely Carl Hagenbeck from "Carl Hagenbeck's Zoological Circus", 1891, Albumen print, 21.9 x 28.2 cm
By Hoof, Paw, Wing or Fin: Creatures in Photographs is on view at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs through November 15, 2019.