"In an essay that tracks the changing cultural significance of animals from pre- to postindustrial societies, John Berger quotes anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: 'It is because man originally felt himself identical to all those like him (among which, as Rousseau explicitly says, we must include animals) that he came to acquire the capacity to distinguish himself
as he distinguishes them
- i.e., to use the diversity of species for conceptual support for social differentiation.' Now, however, animals have become marginalized by industrial development, rendered as raw material to be used as a commodity, as household pets doomed to mirror the behavior of their owners or as objects of spectacle confined to the zoo. 'In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared,' writes Berger. 'In this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.' "
- Kirsty Bell, "Situational Humor", Art in America
, December 2014
- John Berger, Why Look at Animals?
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind
Portrait photography has allowed artists and viewers to explore our understanding of the human experience and to expand our visual language through the use of symbols in both gesture and facial expression. The immediacy and accuracy of photography provides a valuable tool for evaluating who we are as a species and how we interact with each other. Portraits, however, are not limited to finding their subject matter in only people. Through the use of anthropomorphism, animals and even inanimate objects can add to the dialogue. Animals bring a unique element to the conversation as they are able to reflect our human sentiments and also challenge our relationships with not only ourselves but with the world around us.
To better understand our current relationship to animals we must understand philosophies that led us to today. The past four centuries have shaped how we view nature and its purpose. The word purpose is crucial here, because philosophies such as transcendentalism and industrialism view nature as a tool given by God to man for his use.
"...when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens... Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him.
The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.
Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result.
All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed;
the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet,
condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal;
and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature Source
"Nothing hath got so far
But man hath caught and kept it as his prey;
For us, the winds do blow,
The earth doth rest, heaven move, and fountains flow;
Nothing we see, but means our good,
As our delight, or as our treasure;
The whole is either our cupboard of food,
Or cabinet of pleasure.
...More servants wait on manThan he'll take notice of.
Man is one world, and hathAnother to attend him.
-George Herbert, "Man" Source
"What distinguished man from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought, the capacity which was inseparable from the development of language in which words were not mere signals, but signifiers of something other than themselves. Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them."
- - John Berger, Why Look at Animals? Source
Berger argues that man and animal are only distinguishable by our ability to assign symbolic meaning to our surrounding. This uniquely human ability allows for the hierarchy to be established, setting man above the other counterparts of nature. Interestingly, our most earliest and most prevalent symbols have been those of animals. One could conclude from this that the reason we have acquired as much knowledge of the world is with the assistantship of animals and the similarities that we share. Consequently, our current relationship with animals could illuminate unseen parts of the underlying beliefs of our contemporary culture and the implications of those beliefs. In the 18th century the French naturalist Buffon argues the dangers of the acceptance of the aforementioned hierarchy.
"In proportion as man rises above a state of nature, the other animals sink below that standard: Reduced to slavery, or treated as rebels, and dispersed by force, their societies have vanished, their industry has become barren, their arts have disappeared, each species has lost its general qualities, and the whole have preserved only their individual properties, matured, in some, by example, by imitation, and by instruction; and, in others, by fear, and by the necessity of perpetually watching over their won safety. What views, what designs can be possessed by slaves without spirit, or exiles without power?"
- Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, "The Beaver" Source
-William WegmanQuestions for the reader:1.
Do you agree that anthropomorphism in photography, or the arts at large, has something important and unique to bring to the cultural dialogue?2.
What do you think our contemporary culture's views and actions, with regards to animals and nature, say about ourselves as a species?3.
Did any of the artists in this article speak to you more than others? Why? Are there any photographers not included here that you feel would bring something to the discussion?