My great-grandfather wrote two books titled Our Great Outdoors -- one volume on reptiles, another on mammals. Thus it is in the spirit of family tradition that I feel I could, on occasion, as Whitman wrote, "turn and live with the animals." Given this fantasy of becoming a modern day St. Francis, it isn't surprising that I was immediately drawn to Colleen Plumb's monograph, Animals are Outside Today, published by Radius Books. For the past fourteen years Plumb has turned her lens not only on living animals but also on those which are (among other things) dead, stuffed, painted, drawn, plucked, slaughtered, roasted, euthanized, and caged, all of which appear in this book.
Whether behind fences, in a bag or a box, a frame or a jar, many of these animals are separated from humans by a literal divide. On a symbolic level, this separation between humans and nature runs contrary to animism -- the notion that animals (among other things) contain spirits or souls -- but is consistent with the disassociation from nature prevalent in Western culture. At the same time, however, many of the animals in Plumb's photographs are not separated from the viewer; in some cases, they are (or seem) very near, as in Mouse with Fly, in which a fly perches on a dead mouse, seen in close but with soft focus. In exactly what ways are these animals outside today? And outside of what?
There is no one answer here. In Plumb's photographs there are variations in perspective, sharpness, depth of field, emotional tone, and distance from the subject; if there is a common thread it is that the view is often unexpected, as is the way she crops the images. For example, Field Museum Sue shows only part of the tail of the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex in the world. Photographed from below, these bones are dwarfed by the light shining through the checkerboard of windows in the ceiling above the enormous room in which Sue is displayed. That pattern is echoed on the facing page in what is apparently the roof of a cage holding a baby alligator. Not only do we connect the two creatures because of the similarity of the shapes of their tails, but we also see them both as specimens, something collected and preserved in order to be observed. (Interestingly, the word "specimens" comes from the Latin word specere, meaning to look at.) More generally, the sequencing of the images creates the kind of conversation between photographs that happens best in book form; the trim size, paper, layout, and text likewise work well together.
Perhaps the most important question here has to do with death. We cannot possibly escape death in the pages of this book which opens with a Gary Snyder poem titled, Two Fawns That Didn't See the Light of Spring and contains numerous photographs of dead animals. But Burying Jack and Euthanized take us to the heart of the matter. In the former, a little girl stands next to a plain wooden box that is clearly the coffin for a dog named Jack; in the latter, a man and dog (Jack, perhaps?), viewed from far above (from heaven?), lie side by side on a red blanket under a shade tree. From this perspective, it is impossible to know (except conceptually) whether it is the man who is dead or the dog, or both. In this way – in that we humans, like animals, are subject to death – there is no separation between us; we all eventually turn to dust.
Plumb's work is not (thank goodness) merely a polemic against cruelty to animals (although I suspect animal rights' activists may see it this way). Although we can infer some of Plumb's ideas about the way animals exist in today's world, these photographs are less about ideas than about her personal way of seeing animals and of seeing us seeing and depicting animals. Rarely, her idiosyncratic perspective becomes simply obscure, as in Procyon Lotor, in which the reflection of a raccoon is almost as indecipherable as its Latinate name. More often, I find her photographs refreshingly original, well composed, and intelligent. Most of all, I enjoy the way Plumb's work challenges us to consider our relationship with the animal world.
Ellen Rennard is a writer, photographer, and teacher of writing and literature at Groton School in Groton, MA. She graduated from Princeton, where she wrote her thesis on images of Native Americans; she also holds an MA in English from Middlebury. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Fraction Magazine and Photovision; her photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including Black and White and Orion. Images from Rennard’s book project on The Downs at Albuquerque were nominated for a New York Photo Festival Book Award in 2009 and won first place in the 2010 Px3 People’s Choice Awards for Book Proposal and Documentary Photography.