Ed Panar relishes the banal. With projects such as Walking Home -- photographs of houses passed while walking home -- and Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes -- a study of static everyday forms -- Panar operates in the everyday world right outside the door. His previous book Golden Palms, shot in car-centric Los Angeles, was a collection of photos found while walking: garage doors, fencing, highways, "cartoon characters I'd find," in Panar's words, "like the rainspout attached to the wall in a city where it doesn't rain." But even LA on foot was perhaps too exotic for Panar. He has since resettled in nondescript Pittsburgh, where much of his current shooting takes place.
Panar's exploration of the quotidian continues with the recently published Animals That Saw Me. The title says it all. These are various photos of animals that saw Panar, collected over a seventeen-year span from 1993-2010.
The photographs fall into Panar's familiar style. Most are shot dead-on, middle distance, and perfectly centered. The subjects are flashed when necessary. But this project is different. Rather than sit passively for the camera the subjects interact with it by staring back. For the footloose scavenger like Panar such a vision might be reassuring. Normally weeks or months of photos might pass without the photographer having any effect on a scene. In this context, interactive shots might provide relief, or at least some proof that he had an effect.
Panar has seen and been seen by a large variety of animals. I count at least 22 different species among the 38 captionless pictures in the book. All stare at the camera with roughly the same blank gaze, as if to ask what the heck is that person doing? If a physicist "is an atom's way of looking at itself," in the words of Neils Bohr, perhaps these photos are Panar's way of looking back at himself in the way that, say, a garage door or palm tree can't.
Panar's method of letting the photograph come before the project is to be commended. I doubt that he shot any of these photos trying to make "animal" photos. He simply captured them in the course of his shooting, and at a certain point after 17 years he realized they could be sequenced into a project.
Physically the book is a joy to hold, smallish in shape, with bright yellow endpapers and very thin textured cover that is borderline hardback but which lays comfortably flat. The format bounces around enough to keep one guessing. Some photos are small, some take up the page, and a few are full bleed. All but two occupy one side of the spread alone. If there's a logic to it I can't tell. I think Panar takes pleasure in keeping the viewer off balance. The natural state of a photographer should be open to surprise, and Panar imposes this outlook on the reader too.
It's chaotic but I don't want to give the impression the sequence is random. On the contrary, careful thought has gone into it. Panar's photos gain as much meaning from their neighbors in the book as from their essence. I had to examine carefully a pair of sequential photos late in the book to realize they where in fact two different dogs in two different settings. And taken as a whole, the uniformity of the gazes ties the series together with such certitude that it's a bit unsettling.
In style of sequence, size and subject matter, Animals That Saw Me fits well into The Ice Plant catalog, reminding me of Jason Fulford and Mike Slack. None of these shooters will be confused with a jet-setting National Geographic journalist. All revel in the everyday, the power of context and suggestion. The style of the book borrows too from the online world, in particular the Tumblr fashion of pulling disparate elements into a meaningful chain. And in the fashion of Tumblr, the door has been left open to add more later. The subtitle Volume I suggests this may be the first in a series.