Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Animal Portraiture

Noted photographer David Salter visited a national park in North Sulawesi, Indonesia in order to photograph the endangered Celebes crested macaque monkeys. The animals seem friendly enough. They are not afraid of humans and seemed wonderfully curious about Salter and the human technologies he lugged into the forest. The photographer put down his camera momentarily only to have a female macaque break from the group and take the camera. The machine was passed among the animals. A dexterous beast became fascinated with his reflection in the camera lens and somehow managed to take a snapshot self-portrait. The sound of the camera click scared the rest of the macaques but curiosity overcame caution as the animals took up the camera again and snapped a few more pictures. Salter explains “At first there was a lot of grimacing with their teeth showing because it was probably the first time they had ever seen a reflection. . . . They were quite mischievous jumping all over my equipment, and it looked like they were already posing for the camera when one hit the button.” Ultimately, the animals snapped over a hundred pictures before the photographer got his camera back. Salter seemed pleased with the results: “I wish I could have stayed longer as he probably would have taken a full family album.”

Portraiture is a rather unique and uniquely human art. From portrait paintings to photography, the portrait tells a story about the outward social status of the human represented (often surrounded by possessions) or the inner psychological state of the subject (think brooding author photos on book covers). In short, portraiture is about having standing—as a social being amid others or about the privileged interiority of the human subject. In other words, you are some one and you think about things.

Occasionally we find pet portraiture which reflects not simply on the animal him/herself but on the human owner and the social standing of the animal for the individual and the culture.

Portraiture reinforces what Emmanuel Levinas calls “face.” Having face means you are an ethical being who recognizes others and your ethical and social duty toward others. When portraiture captures faces, they are also depicting face. The image acknowledges social and moral standing of the human being depicted. So powerful is the concept of portraiture that James Mollison took brilliant, large, crisp photos of great apes as a gesture of cross-species social and moral standing (see James and Other Apes, 2005). The apes are still waiting on their social standing (perhaps via the Great Ape Project with its curious acronym GAP).

Now enter the Celebes crested macaques who take matters in their own hands. Since humans won’t grant face nor portraiture to animals, they do so for themselves. Levinas never granted that animals had face but the macaques in their portraits grimace as if to say: “I don’t need you to grant that I see you as a being toward which I should be social. Here human, here is a picture of me and by me. Here are others I’ve taken of my group. Am I social? Look around. Am I moral? Ask your neo-Darwinian scientists and they will tell you what I already know but you refuse to believe: I am and I be through my sociability. Survival of the fittest is survival of fitting into an ecology and a society here in the wilds.” And so it is that the macaques grasp technology to reconfigure portraiture.

They are not the only beings to run with a camera. See the Umwelt of the camcorder octopus and the flight of a camcorder stealing seagull. See too Sir Edwin Landseer parodying our concept of portraits and sociability in The Monkey Who Had Seen the World (1827).

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