“Pigs are not corrupted by the Higher Imperialism. Tigers have no spiritual pride. Whales never sneer. Crocodiles are not … in the least bit hypocritical. On examining their exterior, it is difficult to understand why anyone ever gave them credit for so vivacious and ingenious a quality.”
G. K Chesterton.
|"The jungle band of followers - F Carter(?)", albumen print, C1900|
Captain Dickinson’s With Rifle and Camera (1910) was specific about its hierarchies; first the gun then the camera. To be fair, photographing animals in the wild was arduous, if not actually pointless in the 1900s. The photographer would have had to trek through wilderness to find the creatures then hope didn’t bolt in the ten minutes he took to set up his camera and tripod. His subjects were so much easier to deal with when they couldn’t move. Not surprisingly, Dickinson’s photographs turn out to be of people and villages. Those who couldn’t afford expensive photographic equipment, let alone an expedition into Africa, had to make do with the zoo, which wasn’t such a bad place to photograph nature. Some of the most vivid photographs of animals have been taken in zoos. The cage doesn’t just give us the leisure to set up a shot, it provides a context. Whether huddled in a corner or snarling at the bars, a caged lion looks defeated and wretched and good photographers have long known they can make a point about us by shooting animals.
|Lion, unidentified photographer, C1940s|
In 1855 the Comte de Montizon went to the zoo in Regent’s Park to take his famous photograph of the newly arrived hippo. Shooting from across the pond, he may not have been aware of the irony that from his vantage point it was the spectators who were behind the bars. If he was, he deserves credit for an idea that has now become a cliché, made better if the animal is studying the humans. Though the message may be hackneyed, when it works it’s still effective. Just over a century later Garry Winogrand saw the opposite. He gave us a photograph of a European brown bear with its face obscured, only its lower canines jutting through the cyclone wire underneath the sign labelling it. The utter impotence of the caged animal was on display.
|Brown Bear, unidentified photographer, C1940s|
Most of us aren’t great photographers and we wouldn’t be prepared to go to the zoo every Saturday for weeks on end like Winogrand was. The proof sheet with the photograph of the bear also shows he was willing to wait around and shoot a dozen or so frames till he got what he wanted. Spontaneity can require rigorous planning, which isn’t to say that only great photographers can take great photographs at the zoo. As subjects, wild animals are inherently interesting and don’t need to be doing much to hold our attention. As a genre the zoo picture stands up on its own even when there is no apparent message.
|Carl Hagenbeck's Tiergarten, Germany, C1930s|
Any discussion on zoo photographs has to consider the influence of National Geographic. For most of the 20th century it dictated the rules on how animals should be photographed. Anthropomorphism was a cardinal feature. We had to feel the animals’ pain and joy and also recognize that the love a songbird showed her chicks was pretty much identical to a human mother’s. A great wildlife photograph showed an animal at the high point in what could be a very human drama. Today, when decent zoos construct natural environments for their specimens and sophisticated camera equipment fits in our shirt pocket, it’s easy to get that National Geographic moment. Lean over the fence (good zoos don’t have bars these days), zoom in on the tiger resting in the bamboo and that photograph could have been taken in India.
|Elephant, unidentified, no date|
It’s churlish to criticize this, especially when a lot of people can’t and never will be able to afford a trip to Corbett National Park, but something has been lost. In the days when cameras were bigger and zoos had cages, the knowledge that the animal was behind bars was important to the photograph. It confirmed the differences between them and us; a point anyone arguing for animal rights has to begin from. It was more honest too and it permitted the photographer and the viewer to make interpretations.
|Zebras at Taronga Park Zoo, 1936|
Apart from the first photograph of course, all the images here were taken at zoos. They may not qualify as great but it is apparent that the settings are unnatural and the animals out of place. How we read the images is up to us. For some the brown bear will be lonely and isolated, it certainly doesn’t look thrilled to be in this cement prison, but what about the polar bears? Maybe they will accept living among the ridiculous fake slabs as fair compensation for regular meals. We can tell when animals are depressed or playful but we don’t really know what they think. People who claim they can understand them at a deeper level have as legitimate a claim as the old big game hunters whose self proclaimed knowledge of animal consciousness never stopped them from thinking the best place to see an antelope’s head was on a wall.
|Monkey with cat, amateur snapshot, C1940s|
|Carl Hagenbeck's Tiergarten Germany, C1930s|
|Carl Hagenbeck's Tiergarten, Germany, C1930s|
|Giraffes, Taronga Park Zoo, 1936|